It’s been thirty years since Bruce Chatwin published The Songlines. That’s the kind of anniversary that usually elicits either a renewed celebration and revival of a work or a fresh attempt to boot the author up the arse, a la Nicolas Rothwell upon the publication of Chatwin’s letters. Intriguingly, with consummate skill and nuance, Richard Cooke has taken a shot at doing both of those things simultaneously in a long reappraisal of The Songlines for the Australian magazine The Monthly. His essay is a model of what literary criticism can do when combined with cultural and biographical research, a deep sympathy for the writer’s intentions and accomplishments, an awareness for the writer’s shortcomings, and a keen eye for fine-grained textual details. What Cooke has essentially written is a paean to The Songlines as a remarkable, visionary book that was compromised from the outset by the limitations of its author’s vision, and that ended up offering a crippled representation of the very thing it aimed to praise.
“Songlines are not just sung poems,” writes Cooke:
They are also legal documents, genealogical records, maps and the legends of maps, documentations of flora and fauna, systems of navigation, religious rites, spells, history books, memory palaces, and endless other combinations of ceremony, knowledge and philosophy that cannot be readily analogised into another culture. Anthropologists have dedicated their lives to obtaining only the most peripheral glimpses of them. Some have resisted further insights, knowing they are bought through a system of law, obligation and initiation that is not entered into lightly. Compared to the accumulation and expanse of millennia of living traditions, writing itself can seem like an almost futile explanatory tool.
And as Cooke points out, Chatwin was not only determined to envision the songlines as cultural artefacts of an essentially nomadic nature, but also “had neither the time nor the inclination to approach Aboriginal philosophy through Aboriginal people, and instead relied on white intermediaries.” As a result, in Chatwin’s book, “the area where the philosophy [of the songlines] seems most distorted is where it touches on obligation. Songlines anchor those who sing them in place, in family, and in kin. They are a source of constraint and rootedness, not just a siren song to go walkabout.” In light of Chatwin’s reticence or failure to understand these things, The Songlines is perhaps not the book he intended it to be. But that’s not to say it’s not an achievement, and Cooke does a fine job of honouring the achievement in full awareness of its shortcomings rather than in spite of them.