Thursday, September 29, 2011

Entry 181 9.28.11

Entry 181, September 28th, 2011, 11:43pm (GMT +2)

Alright, I promised another entry about Bruce Chatwin's “The Songlines,”and it's about time I got around to it.

Check out how he starts the book. This is one of my favorite openings.

In Alice Springs – a grid of scorching streets where men in long white socks were forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers – I met a Russian who was mapping the sacred sites of the Aboriginals.

His name was Arkady Volchok. He was an Australian citizen. He was thirty-three years old.”

Argh, I love it. Dude writes like Hemingway. Steven King talks about including the right details, and this is a perfect example. Men inlong white socks, forever getting in and out of Land Cruisers? I love it. It's a pity Chatwin had to die of AIDS in France in 1989.

Anyway. The book is ostensibly about the Aboriginal songlines in Australia, but the songlines are actually just an excuse to address deeper questions. One of them is this: is mankind, as a species, inclined towards violence and aggression between one other as a matter of instinct?

I quote Chatwin:

Suppose, for the sake of argument, you cut all the loose talk of 'aggression' and focused on the problem of 'defense.' What if the Adversary on the plains of Africa, had not been the other man? What if the adrenal discharges that precipitate 'fighting fury' had evolved to protect us from the big cats? What if our weapons were not, primarily, for hunting game, but for saving our skins? What if we were not so much a predatory species as a species in search of a predator? Or if, at some critical watershed, the Beast had been about to win?

Here – let there be no mistake – lies the great divide.

If the first men had been brutish, murderous, cannibalistic, if their rapacity had driven them to acts of extermination and conquest, then any State, by providing an umbrella of force, will have saved men from themselves and must, inevitably, be considered beneficial. Such a State must, however frightful for the individual, be counted a blessing. And any action by individuals to disrupt, weaken or threaten the State will be a step in the direction of primaeval chaos.

If, on the other hand, the first men themselves were humbled, harried, besieged, their communities few and fragmented, forever gazing at the horizon whence help might come, clinging to life and one another through the horrors of the night – might not all the specific attributes we call 'human' – language, song-making, food-sharing, gift-giving, intermarriage – this is to say, all the voluntary graces which bring equipoise to society, which suppress the use of force among its members; and which can only function smoothly if equivalence is the rule – might not all of these have evolved as stratagems for survival, hammered out against tremendous odds, to avert the threat of extinction? Would the, therefore, be any less instinctual or directionless? Would not a general theory of defense explain more readily why offensive wars are, in the long run, unfightable? Why the bullies never win?”

It's important to remember that he was writing this during the latter part of the Vietnam war. There's also a long discussion about possible candidates for this hypothetical beast, including one cat (now extinct) that seemed particularly designed to slaughter humans. I'll leave it out for now, but it draws a lot on his background in archeology (not making this up . . . Chatwin = Indiana Jones?).

But it's an interesting question. History is full of examples of people who normally fight each other brought together by a common threat. The cooperation of Roosevelt and Stalin to fight Hitler is on example; the alliance of Greek city-states during times of war is another (although they had varying success). Is that what we need to live in harmony as a species? An external threat scary enough to unify the entire world? It reminds me of “The Watchmen.”

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