The Songlines is generally considered Bruce Chatwin’s masterpiece, even though its form is difficult to categorize. It certainly is an adventure story, but it is also a novel of ideas; it combines, although to a lesser extent than In Patagonia, many of the identical literary, historical, and philosophical techniques, such as anecdote, biography, autobiography, anthropological case study, and other similar methods of inquiry. The book includes a previously unpublished anthropological study called “The Nomadic Alternative,” which had arisen from Chatwin’s journeys to Africa and South America.

Some critics have labeled The Songlines a metaphysical novel that interweaves Chatwin’s experiences in the Australian outback with philosophical meditations on the dark future of Western civilization. It resembles In Patagonia in that it can be read as a long meditation upon the ruins of the prelogical civilization of the Aboriginals, who now dwell in the fallen world of time and permanent location and, as a result, have lost their visionary consciousness. Their reaction to being restricted to a particular space has resulted in alcoholism of epidemic proportions.

Readers familiar with Chatwin’s recurring concern will encounter it again in this work. As in In Patagonia, Chatwin believes that humankind’s original pristine state was as nomadic travelers rather than as settlers in a permanent location. What obsessed him for more than twenty years was the destructive territorialism that permanent ownership breeds. Mircea Eliade demonstrated in dozens of books that humankind has derived its sense of the sacred from symbolic centers in which the divine and the human intersect. These points of intersection (Calvary, for example) then become permanent centers of significance or shrines around which civilizations are built. People, then, derive their identities from their proximity to permanent sacred places.

What troubled Chatwin was that the definition of the sacred among the natives of the Australian outback differs radically...

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