Annotated extracts from "The Songlines" by Bruce Chatwin.

Re-reading [Konrad] Lorenz made me realise why sensible people tended to throw up their hands in horror: to deny there was such a thing as human nature, and to insist that everything must be learnt.

- "Sensible" is perhaps a somewhat subjective word.

'Genetic determinism', they felt threatened every liberal, human and democratic impulse to which the West still clung. They recognised, too, that you couldn't pick and choose with instincts: you had to take the lot. You couldn't allow Venus into the Pantheon and bolt the door on Mars. And once you took on 'fighting', 'territorial behaviour' and 'rank order', you were back in the soup of nineteenth-century reaction.


Men are products of their situations, and learning conditions everything they will ever say or think or do. Children are traumatised by events in their childhood; nations by crises in their history. But could this 'conditioning' mean there are no absolute standards which transcend historical memories? No 'rights' or 'wrongs' regardless of race or creed? Has the 'gift of tongues' somehow done away with instinct? - infinitely malleable and adaptive? If so, then all the Great Teachers have been spouting hot air.

- I include this section to help highlight the ridiculousness of the modern world and show what we're up against.

The most 'objectionable' passage in On Aggression - or the one that led to catcalls of 'Nazi!' - is one in which Lorenz describes the instinctive 'fixed motor pattern' observable in young soldiers roused to battle fury: the head held high ... chin stuck out ... the arms rotated inwards ... the shiver down the now non-existent hair along the spine...: 'One soars elated above the cares of everyday life ... Men enjoy the feeling of absolute righteousness even when they commit atrocities ...

And yet ... the mother who fights in fury to defend her child is - one would hope! - obeying the call of instinct, not the advice of some maternal guidance leaflet. And if you allow the existence of fighting behaviour in young women, why not also in young men?

Instincts are Pascal's 'reasons of the heart of which the reason knows nothing'. And to believe in the 'reasons of the heart' holds no comfort whatsoever for the reactionary - very much the reverse!

- I must add that I think this attack on being reactionary is entirely unwarranted, being reactionary has everything to do with sentiment, sadly less to do with reason. Additionally it might be assumed that if indeed the "reasons of the heart" are merely instinct they lose any sacred or transcendental quality, I however believe that theses things can greatly intersect.

Without religion, in Dostoyevsky's famous formulation, everything is permissible. Without instinct, everything would be equally permissible. A world shorn of instinct would be a far more deadly and dangerous place than anything the 'aggression mongers' could come up with, for here would be Limbo-land where everything could be capped by something else: good could be bad; sense, nonsense; truth, lies; knitting no more moral than child murder; and where a man might be brainwashed into thinking or saying or doing whatever might be pleasing to the powers-that-be.

- People are sometimes told to 'break their programming' never to keep or restore their programming, perhaps it's time to start.

A torturer can cut off a man's nose; but if the man gets a chance to breed, his child will be born with a nose. So with instinct! A core of unmodifiable instinct in man means that the brainwashers must begin their work of distortion over and over again, with each individual and each generation - and this, in the end, is a very wearisome business.

- And as the following sections will hopefully show a "business" made all the more difficult by mythology!

The Greeks believed there were limits to the range of human behaviour: not, as Camus pointed out, that these limits would never be surpassed, simply that they existed, arbitrarily; and that whoever had the hubris to exceed them would be struck down by fate!

Lorenz maintains there are certain crises - or instinctual rubicons - in the life of any animal when it receives a call to behave in a certain way. The call is not necessarily taken up; for if the 'natural' target of it's behaviour is missing, the animal will redirect it on a substitute - and grow up warped.

Every mythology has its version of the 'Hero and his Road of Trials', in which a young man, too receives a 'call'. He travels to a distant country where some giant or monster threatens to destroy the population. In a superhuman battle, he overcomes the Power of Darkness, proves his manhood, and recives his reward: a wife, treasure land, fame. These he enjoys into late middle age when, once again, the clouds darken. Again, he leaves: either like Beowulf to die in combat or, as the blind Tiresias prophesies for Odysseus, to set off for some mysterious destination, and vanish.

'Catharsis': Greek for 'purging' or 'cleansing'. One controversial etymology derives it from the Greek Katheiro 'to rid the land of monsters'.

Myth proposes, action disposes. The Hero cycle represents an unchangeable paradigm of 'ideal' behaviour for the human male. (One could, of course, work one out for the Heroine.)

Each section of the myth - like a link in a behavioural chain - will correspond to one of the classic Ages of Man. Each Age opens with some fresh barriers to be scaled or ordeal to be endured. The status of the Hero will rise in proportion as to how much of this assault course he completes - or is seen to complete.

- This is a plausible theory of how one common element of mythology is a product of instinct, and in all probablilty a way of subliminal re-enforcement of what our primitive selves already know, of course there are other common mythological forms, which Chatwin does not mention but if he is correct in this case, the same is likely true in others.

Most of us not being heroes, dawdle through life, mis-time out cues, and end up in our various emotional messes. The Hero does not. The Hero - and this is why we hail him as a hero - takes each ordeal as it comes, and chalks up point after point.

- 'The Hero' in this case is not every hero very much not the heroes in real life, neither in mythology. I have described how Arthur does not perfectly fit the mould of the archetypal hero also the writers of Arthurian romance delighted in making the characters of the knights of the round table while heroic and triumphant, flawed, uncertain, adulterous and flat out debauched - possibly through a Christian need for redemption or as a providential explaination for their eventual failure.

I once made the experiment of slotting the career of a modern hero, Che Guevara, on to the structure of the Beowulf epic. The result was, with a bit of tinkering here and there, that both heroes are seen to perform the same set of exploits in the same sequence: the leavetaking; the voyage across the sea; the defeat of the monster (Grendel-Batista); the defeat of the monster's mother ('The water-hag' - the Bay of Pigs). Both heroes receive their reward: a wife, fame, treasure (in Guevara's case a Cuban wife and the Directorship of the National Bank of Cuba), and so forth. Both end up dying in a distant country: Beowulf killed by the Scaly Worm, Guevara by the Dictator of Bolivia. As a man, Guevera, for all his charm, strikes one as a ruthless and unpleasant personality. As a Hero, he never put a foot wrong - and the world chose to see him as a Hero.

- Put that way, that being ruthless and heroic may go together, careful deviations from the blueprint are perhaps for the best.

Heroes in moments of crisis are said to hear 'angel voices' telling them what to do next. The whole of Odyssey is a marvellous tug of war between Athene whispering in Odysseus's ear, 'Yes, you'll make it,' and Poseidon roaring, 'No, you won't!' And if you swap the word 'instinct' for 'angel-voice', you come close to the more psychologically-minded mythographers: that myths are fragments of the soul-life of Early Man.

- Early man or our more recent ancestors, it doesn't matter as human nature as mentioned previously does not greatly change.

Later on in the book he states the theory that language began as poetry and song, if this is the case then surely imparting wisdom in a poetic way that favours creativity over plain language will suit us better.

The Most Sublime labour of poetry is to give sense and passion to insensate things; and it is characteristic of children to take inanimate things in their hands and talk to them in play as if they were living persons... This philological-philosophical axiom proves to us that in the world's childhood men were by nature sublime poets...

Giambattista Vico, The New Science, XXXVII

Men vent great passions by breaking into song, as we observe in the most grief-stricken and the most joyful.

Vico, The New Science, LIX

The Ancient Egyptians believed the seat of the soul was in the tongue was a rudder or steering-oar with which a man steered a course through the world.


'Primitive' languages consist of very long words, full of difficult sounds and sung rather than spoken ... The early words must have been to present ones what the plesiosaurus and gigantosaurus are to present-day reptiles.

O.Jespersen, Language

Poetry is the mother tongue of the human race as the garden is older than the field, painting than writing, singing than declaiming, parables than inference, bartering than commerce...

J.G. Hamann, Arsthetica in Nuce

All passionate language does of itself become musical - with a finer music than the mere accent; the speech of a man even in zealous anger becomes a chant, a song.

Thomas Carlyle, quoted in Jespersen, Language

Words well voluntarily from the breast without need or intent, and there has probably not been in any desert waste a migratiry horde that did not possess its own songs. As an animal species, the human being is a singing creature, but he combines ideals with the musical sounds involved.

Wilhelm von Humbrolt, Linguistic Variability and Intellectual Development

According to Strehlow, the Aranda word tnakama means 'to call by name' and also 'to trust' and 'to believe'.


Poetry proper is never merely a higher mode (melos) of everyday language. It is rather the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem, from which there hardly resounds a call any longer.

Martin Heidegger, 'Language'



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