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6. Materials

6.1. The Aborigine songline tradition

I will give here a few outlines of information on the Aborigine songline tradition as much as I was able to gather. Through a friend, I became acquainted with Wighard Strehlow (1996), whose book commemorates the work of his grandfather Carl and his uncle Theodor. Carl had been a missionary in the Australian Aranda territory at Hermannsburg from 1894 on and he was one of the first white people in Australia who didn't just consider the Aborigines as fair game for extermination hunts. He gave them shelter and protection from the man-hunters, tried to convert them to become good christians, and all the while learned a lot of their lifestyles which he documented in several books. After Carl's death in 1922, his youngest son Theodor (1908-1978) continued the ethnographical work of his father. Strehlow (1996: 20-21).

Theodor Strehlow is one of those exceedingly rare cases of an anthropologist who could view the culture that he studied, from the inside, with the eyes of a native, since he had grown up among the Aranda children, and he could see their culture also from the viewpoint of the scientist. He was one of those rare cross-cultural individuals whose cognitive system enabled them to entertain otherwise mutually incompatible worldviews. He was able to perform a cognitive Gestalt flip of perception between the extremely disparate perceptions of reality as those of the whites and the Aborigines are. Because of this intimate insight, T. Strehlow's work offers some aspects that can hardly be found in any other studies on Australian Aboriginal culture. The essential factor that makes his work vital for a study like "Alternatives to the Alphabet" is his primary socialization into Aranda culture (see Chatwin, below). There is a possibility of a cultural "faculty X" that can remain hidden from view for any observer who comes from a civilization to an indigenous setting as distinct as the Aranda life is: the factors of somatic conditioning that are "imbibed with the mother's milk" in the first year of life. These factors will tend to stay completely hidden from conscious observation, equally for the natives of the indigenous tradition, as well as for visiting ethnographic researchers (if they are not especially trained for this). These hidden factors must be counted among prime candidates for "unobservables" as Frits Staal calls them. They can be so unobservable that Strehlow himself wasn't aware that he could notice something that no-one else from the white culture was able to discern. Of course the Aborigines knew that he could perceive (even though he wasn't able to let this percolate through to his rational verbal language thoughts) and therefore they let him partake in rituals that neither before him nor after him any Western person had been allowed to see and hear. Moreover, they allowed him to film and tape that material. And today this priceless treasure of human cultural memory lies at the Strehlow Research center. In the works of T. Strehlow that were reviewed (1964), (1971), and the description given by Chatwin, one gets the feeling that T. Strehlow was a man who lived "between two worlds" and belonged to neither. This would have to be validated through further research, and more would have to be found out by which "faculty X" that could have came about.

Chatwin (1988: 76-79) describes T. Strehlow and his work thusly:
(76): Strehlow, by all accounts, was an awkward cuss himself.
(77): His father, Karl Strehlow, had been pastor in charge of the Lutheran Mission at Hermannsburg, to the west of Alice Springs. He was one of a handful of 'good Germans' who, by providing a secure land-base, did more than anyone to save the Central Australian Aboriginals from extinction by people of British stock. This did not make them popular. During the First World War, a press campaign broke out against this 'Teuton spies'-nest' and the 'evil effects of Germanizing the natives'.
As a baby, Ted Strehlow had an Aranda wet-nurse and grew up speaking Aranda fluently. [Emphasis, A.G.]. Later, as a university graduate, he returned to 'his people' and, for over thirty years, patiently recorded in notebooks, on tape and on film the songs and ceremonies of the passing order. His black friends asked him to do this so their songs should not die with them entirely.
It was not surprising, given his background, that Strehlow became an embattled personality: an autodidact who craved both solitude and recognition, a German 'idealist' out of step with the ideals of Australia.
. Aranda Traditions, his earlier book, was years ahead of its time in its thesis that the intellect of the 'primitive' was in no way inferior to that of modern man. The message, though largely lost on Anglo-Saxon readers, was taken up by Claude Levi-Strauss, who incorporated Strehlow's insights into The Savage Mind
Then, in late middle age, Strehlow staked everything on a grand idea.
He wanted to show how every aspect of Aboriginal song had its counterpart in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Old Norse or Old English: the literatures we acknowledge as our own. Having grasped the connection of song and land, he wished to strike at the roots of song itself: to find in song a key to unravelling the mystery of the human condition. It was an impossible untertaking. He got no thanks for his trouble.
When the Songs came out in 1971, a carping review in the Times Literary Supplement suggested the author should have refrained from airing his 'grand poetic theory'. The review upset Strehlow terribly. More upsetting were the attacks of the 'activists' who accused him of stealing the songs, with a view to publication, from innocent and unsuspecting Elders.
Strehlow died at his desk in 1978, a broken man.
(78-79): Strehlow once compared the study of Aboriginal myths to entering a 'labyrinth of countless corridors and passages', all of which were mysteriously connected in ways of baffling complexity. Reading the Songs, I got the impression of a man who had entered this secret world by the back door; who had had the vision of a mental construction more marvellous and intricate than anything on earth, a construction to make Man's material achievements seem like so much dross - yet which somehow evaded description.
What makes Aboriginal song so hard to appreciate is the endless accumulation of detail...
I read on. Strehlow's transliterations from the Aranda were enough to make one cross-eyed. When I could read no more, I shut the book. My eyelids felt like glasspaper. I finished the bottle of wine and went down to the bar for a brandy.

This vivid description of Bruce Chatwin [93] that he as a novelist author was permitted to make gives more information on this ominous "faculty X" than anything I could gather from academic anthropological literature. My own experience reading Strehlow's book closely correlates with Chatwin's.

The ecological setting of Central Australia forced the Aranda into a nomadic lifestyle, since the rainfall is extremely sporadic, there is no predictable rain season, but irregular thunderstorms that appear very locally and at long time intervals (around ten years, as I could gather from the material). So the people had to be constantly on the move to places where there were foodstuffs, animals, and water. There were no pack animals that could carry any belongings, and so the people could carry with them only very few material possessions. Whatever CM material they wanted to preserve, they had to keep in their minds and memories.

Even though Aboriginal culture was almost erased by the whites, some material remains, but how much needs to be determined. Further studies are necessary, of special importance seem to be the data collected in the Strehlow Research centre, the films of the last Aranda rituals that the elders performed for Strehlow before they died without successors to carry on their tradition. From what I could gather in conversations with people involved in Aboriginal research and with W. Strehlow, there seems to be a double research problem. One is that the revival movements of the Australian Aborigines (the 'activists') are actively prohibiting research into this area which they consider secret and property of their nation(s), even though they themselves haven't learned any of that and wouldn't want to learn it either. The "Songs of central Australia" for example, has been forbidden to be reprinted, on account of the political pressure of the activists, and it seems as if even the curators of the Western ethnological museums are bowing to the pressure of these groups and inhibit further research. Another problem seems to be that white Australia is still "ashamed" of this heritage and would rather have it disappear altogether. These research difficulties and the late discovery of the Aranda case prevented a more detailed study which would under any circumstances have to be conducted in Australia at the Strehlow Research centre, if-and-only-if the political Aboriginal activist pressure hasn't already closed this door of research.

The Aboriginal Aranda tradition may present the last, largest, and purest case of a CMA that has been preserved up until our days. They had to concentrate all their knowledge in a non-material transmission form of dance and songs. Chatwin (1988: 119-120) indicates that it is not the words of the songlines which convey the information but the melody, or the rhythm, or both. This gives a hint that there is an important element in aboriginal transmission that is non-verbalizable. In order to substantiate that, more research would be needed. Perhaps the films and tape recordings in the Strehlow Research centre are the very last materials that humanity has for documentation of such "Alternatives to the Alphabet". And this material is in danger of being destroyed by indigenous political activism that has no more usage for the old traditions of their forefathers, but wants to wield these secrets as power mechanism for their own ends. We can thus recur to the desperation of Adolf Bastian (1881) who had realized 100 years ago that the cultural memory of the ethnic traditions of humanity was on fire, burning like the Maya codices that Diego de Landa hat put on the pyre. "Eine brennende Zeitfrage allerdings! Es brennt in allen Ecken und Enden der ethnologischen Welt, brennt hell, lichterloh, in vollster Brunst, es brennt ringsum, Gross Feuer! und Niemand regt eine Hand." And perhaps, today is the day, when the very last of those traditions disappears from the cultural memory of humanity, this time not destroyed by the white intruders, but by the activists of the indigenous people themselves.

[93] who had been a close friend of the author of "Satanic Verses", Salman Rushdie (personal communication, Jan Assman).

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