Friday, October 23, 2009

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines is a fascinating mess. It’s not a novel; it’s not travelogue; it’s not anthropology; it’s not philosphy, not political philosophy. It is some of each of these, a perplexing, intriguing gumbo, but in the end it becomes something and nothing.

In the novel, Chatwin is clearly attempting to enunciate the notions he has of humanity and civilization and the way we have evolved. He has a central thesis – that mankind is essentially nomadic and broadly peaceful – and he seeks, in the way of all poor science, to work from this notion backwards towards the proof. In the end, even his frustration spills over, and the last half of the novel is, frankly, bizarre. Perhaps brilliantly bizarre, but still bizarre.

The novel is a lightly fictionalised account of Chatwin’s investigations into Aboriginal culture in Australia. In it, ‘Bruce’ and his guide Arkady visit Australia’s interior, interviewing Aborigines and whites about songlines, the invisible (to non-Aborigines) tracks which represent the Dreaming, the way in which the land was sung into being by the ancestors. Part map, part history, part geography, part genealogy, part culture, the songlines are a complex weave of origin mythology, the link between man and landscape, between inner and outer worlds, between body and spirit, between present and past. The ancestors walked this land, step by step, looking left and right, and singing into creation every single feature – rocks, animals, plants – the entire fabric of the world. The songlines represent the journeys of those ancients, and each succeeding generation knows and remembers and perpetuates the songs, going on walkabout to retrace the journeys, meeting, helping, being helped by kin, those who share the same dreaming. And so the culture was created and so it exists and so it is handed on. It is dazzlingly written. Bruce, an enthusiastic outsider, is keen to understand, although he struggles to grasp the complexity of this hidden culture, thus taking the place of the reader as baffled seeker after knowledge. Chatwin also effectively counterpoints this culture with the current day, with the casual, ignorant racism of some of the locals, and with the clash between those who wish to help the Aborigines and those who don’t, and also the predicament of Aborigines today. Although ultimately he does fall into the trap, Chatwin initially works hard not to assume the traditional western approach of patronising the Rousseauian noble savages, and thus they are not presented here as innocent victims.

All of this is gripping, finely written, conveying a sense of the complexity of the culture while showing us, through Bruce’s struggles to comprehend, how utterly different it is from anything that the western mind can fathom. However, from half way through the novel disintegrates. It is taken over by fragments and snippets from the notebooks of ‘Bruce’ (clearly those of Chatwin himself), with quotations from philosophers and anthropologists, extracts from meetings with people like Konrad Lorenz, one- and two-line snippets of Bruce’s thoughts and so on, all of them dealing more and more explicitly with the theme that has clearly come to obsess Chatwin, his notion that mankind is essentially a migratory animal. And here Chatwin commits the anthropological solecism of seeking to compare one nomadic culture with another, and extrapolate from individual cultures general truths about humanity.

Thus, the novel’s focus shifts from a specific study of Aboriginal culture into wider theorising about nomadism. It feels completely disjointed. Susannah Clapp, one of Chatwin’s editors, suggests the novel ‘creaks in trying to make large statements’ and ‘the narrative of the book comes apart and is never put together again in an entirely satisfactory way’. It reads to me as though Chatwin, focusing too intently on his grand theory, lost a sense of intellectual perspective, grew tired of trying to thread the theory into a fictional narrative and just gave up all pretence, throwing in an accumulation of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ in its raw form, trusting that the reader will be as awed as he was, and will come to the same conclusion. It would be like, to take a ridiculously anachronistic example, Shakespeare breaking off before Act III Scene II of Julius Caesar and throwing in relevant quotes from Machiavelli and Hobbes and Robespierre et al on the politics of power instead of giving us ‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen...’ At least Melville devotes entire chapters in Moby Dick to the histories of whales and whaling, essentially writing discrete essays on the subjects, rather than three line fragments of his own and other people’s thoughts. It is as though Chatwin either loses confidence in his own ability to articulate his thoughts in fictional form, or simply loses patience. Be clear, we are not talking about a couple of epigraphs: the bulk of the remainder of the novel is given over to these musings. However, in fairness to Chatwin, this is not to suggest that they are random or unconnected. They do cohere into a logical – though not necessarily convincing – argument. It is simply that the argument does not fit within the novel that preceded it and, finally, emerges from its shadow to reach its conclusion.

I can see why many people love this book. I can also see why many – especially anthropologists – dismiss it. There is certainly much to discuss in it, and it posits an interesting theory on the origins of man, that we are essentially nomadic and peace-loving. But selective presentation of other people’s arguments does not a thesis make.


ena2ooo said...

As a trustworthy source reports, Chatwin wasn't satisfied with the final shape of the novel either: ‘If I’d tried to deliver everything I had in mind, the result might be even more incoherent than it is’ (Shakespeare, 517). His friend Roberto Calasso claims Chatwin was in a hurry while working on 'The Songlines', as he'd already known his illness was terminal.
On the other hand, the rest of his books also lacks smoothness here and there, so perhaps this is just Chatwin's 'habit of mind' to give us sets of scenes than tales of a string of beads sticked tightly?
But it's still something, isn't it?

Tom Conoboy said...

Hi, sorry to take so long replying.

Yes, I still think there's some wonderful stuff in the book. I hadn't realised he was already terminally ill when writing the book.

I do think he was a loss to literature, dying so young.