Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, 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.
(The entire section contains 470 words.)
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