Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470
Bruce Chatwin relates his travels in Australia to learn about Aboriginal culture. He also reflects on travels in Africa when he learned about human origins, aiming to account for the dispersion of linguistic norms that he sees as uniting disparate peoples worldwide. The “songlines” that he explores are expressive media through which mythical ancestors communicated in traversing the earth, accounting for their presence in Australian natural geographical features. The epoch before humans constructed social and physical structures was the Dreamtime.
Aboriginal creation myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who had wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—and so singing the world into existence.
Rejecting any categorizing of the book, Chatwin draws on a variety of disciplines, including journalism, folklore, music, anthropology, and linguistics to support his ideas. Some critics maintain that, despite objections to both, he deferred to the “fiction” label to avoid charges of plagiarism and white European appropriation of indigenous cultural material. Chatwin’s musings appeal to diverse nonspecialist readers but tend to stay on the surface of the material rather than offer in-depth analysis.
Many readers have challenged several basic premises. Chatwin begins from a dualistic version of cultural worldviews, separating whites into one type and everyone else into another. This approach does not mesh with his focus on innovation as a primary effect of songline nomadism.
The whites were forever changing the world to fit their doubtful vision of the future. The Aboriginals put all their mental energies into keeping the world the way it was.
Chatwin’s own hesitancy about settling down encouraged him to pursue the concept of restlessness in people from other cultural backgrounds. He considers it a fundamental state of being.
I felt, before the malaise of settlement crept over me, that I should . . . set down on paper a resume of the ideas, quotations and encounters which had amused and obsessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness.
Chatwin elaborates on the conclusions he draws, connecting Australia’s indigenous heritage to issues in other parts of the world. Central to his thesis is the “nomad” concept, which he postulates as a primary human mode of adaptation. He also argues for the centrality of song in early human communicative systems.
The author relies for much of his information on Arkady Volchok, a Russian aficionado of Aboriginal culture and former schoolteacher on rural Australian Aborginal reservations. Among the projects that Arkady has taken on is the creation of maps showing songline-related locations.
Arkady’s job was to identify the traditional landowners, drive them over their old hunting grounds . . . and to get them to reveal which rock or soak or ghostgum was the work of a Dreamtime hero.