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
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.
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
(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
Strehlow died at his desk in 1978, a broken
(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
that he as a novelist author was
permitted to make gives more information on this ominous "faculty X
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
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
(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.
who had been a close
friend of the author of "Satanic Verses", Salman Rushdie (personal
communication, Jan Assman).