Walking and Singing

Our Hunting, Wandering and Gathering Heritage

This excursion into that which is asserted to be inescapably human began with the reading of The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin,. I quote here from Wikipedia’s entry for the book:

The basic idea that Chatwin posits is that language started as song, and the (Australian) aboriginal dreamtime sings the land into existence. A key concept of aboriginal culture is that the aboriginals and the land are one. By singing the land, the land itself exists; you see the tree, the rock, the path, the land. What are we if not defined by our environment? And in one of the harshest environments on Earth one of our oldest civilizations became literally as one with the country. This central concept then branches out from Aboriginal culture … (to) the African Savannah (when) we were a migratory species, moving solely on foot, hunted by a dominant brute predator in the form of a big cat: hence the spreading of ‘songlines’ across the globe, eventually reaching Australia … where they are now preserved in the world’s oldest living culture.

[Note: The book can be called ‘fiction’, according to a review in Spike Magazine–“One of the most amazing qualities that sets Chatwin apart was his ability to mix fact and fiction in his ‘stories’. As he said himself, ‘The word story is intended to alert the reader to the fact that, however closely the narrative may fit the facts, the fictional process has been at work.’ This is idea is best held in mind when considering his best-selling book, The Songlines (1987).” (Source)]

Somewhat over half-way through the book, Chatwin digresses from Australia of the 1980s into a presentation and discussion of notes he has written during his many years of travel in the least urbanized parts of our world. Many of these notes are from his readings:

  • Thus if one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right -Søren Kierkegaard, letter to Jette (1847)
  • Solvitur Ambulando–It is solved by walking -St. Augustine
  • Perhaps our need for distraction, our mania for the new (is) an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn -Chatwin
  • Our nature lies in movement; complete calm is death -Blaise Pascal
  • I was forced to travel, to ward off the apparitions assembled in my brain -Arthur Rimbaud
  • Natural selection has designed us for a career of seasonal journeys on foot through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert–Chatwin

I was delighted that Chatwin had recorded in his notebook conversations with Konrad Lorenz, one of the founders of modern ethology, and author of the best-selling On Aggression (1966). According to Lorenz, animals, particularly males, are biologically programmed to fight over resources. Also the book addresses behavior in humans, including discussion of a model of emotional or instinctive pressures and their release, shared by Freud, and the abnormality of intraspecies violence and killing (emphasis added).

I read a lot of popular scientific writing during the 1960s in this new examination of animal behavior as it may apply also to man as animal (ethology). Two other authors in this realm are Robert Ardrey and Desmond Morris.

African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative, two of Robert Ardrey’s most widely read works, as well as Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape (1967), were key elements in the public discourse of the 1960s which challenged earlier anthropological assumptions. Ardrey’s ideas notably influenced Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick in the development of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

From opening scene 2001: A Space Odyssey

  • To live in one land is captivity; to (run in) all countries, a wild roguery–John Donne
  • It is good to collect things, but it is better to go on walks–Anatole France
  • We Lapps (Sámi) have the same nature as the reindeer: in the springtime we long for the mountains; in the winter we are drawn to the woods–Turi’s Book of Lappland

    Not all the theories propounded by these and other authors in this realm, during this time (1960s and 1970s), hold up today, especially that we humans are inherently killers or descended form “killer apes” as Ardrey suggests.

    But, back to the book that started this conversation: The Songlines, by Bruce Chatwin–I recommend it to you, if for no other reason (and there are many), to live, as much as is possible through reading of it, in the Australian Outback.

The Northern Territory of Australia, including Alice Springs, a major reference point for the travels in this book


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There are two teachings which deserve a reading in high school, perhaps, but certainly in one’s young adulthood:  The Perennial Philosophy, by Aldous Huxley, and The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. I did not read these until I was in my 70s and regret not having read them earlier.

Written during the first half of the 20th Century, they intersect and complement each other in many places. One place they intersect is at the subject of  “charity.”

Having now read these books I now see charity as an easily misunderstood word and concept, or at least one as being variously, inconsistently interpreted. Before reading these books I perceived charity as a neutral, slightly religious term, while my wife Eva finds it a distasteful one, connoting a relationship of superiority of one person over another (e.g., the giver and the receiver of alms).

But this discussion, so far, is off the mark; it is not addressing the fuller, more soulful original meaning of the concept of charity.

According to Huxley, the ‘perennial philosophy’ is:

the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being…Rudiments of the perennial philosophy may be found among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it has a place in every one of the higher religions.

Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963

In Chapter 5, “Charity,” Huxley writes:

By a kind of philological accident…the word ‘charity’ has come, in modern English, to be synonymous with ‘almsgiving,’ and is almost never used in its original sense, as signifying the highest and most divine form of love…(C)harity is disinterested, seeking no reward, nor allowing itself to be diminished by any return of evil for its good…(P)ersons and things are to be loved for God’s sake, because they are temples of the Holy (Spirit)…The distinguishing marks of charity are disinterestedness, tranquility and humility. But where there is disinterestedness there is neither greed for personal advantage nor fear for personal loss or punishment…

As for Varieties, Wikipedia describes the book thus:

A Study in Human Nature…by the Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James that comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on “Natural Theology” delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland between 1901 and 1902. These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science, in James’ view, in the academic study of religion. Soon after its publication, the book found its way into the canon of psychology and philosophy, and has remained in print for over a century.

William James, 1842-1910

James has this to say about charity in his chapter on “Saintliness,” which condition elicits these “practical consequences:” asceticism, strength of soul, purity and charity. Regarding the latter, he writes: “The shifting of the emotional center (toward loving and harmonious affections) brings…increase of charity, tenderness for fellow-creatures…The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers.”

“…Charity and Brotherly Love.. have always been reckoned essential theological virtues…But these affections are certainly not mere derivatives of theism. We find them in Stoicism, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism in the highest possible degree.”

I found no passage where James, like Huxley in a later time, harked back to an earlier and more apt understanding of the nature of the concept of charity. I take this to mean that the general understanding of the English word in James’s time had not yet made the lamentable change to which Huxley refers.

What is there to glean from this brief exposition on “charity?”

First, I see no essential difference regarding the subject between these two great thinkers.

Second, I see that Huxley’s lament that we have lost the original meaning is importantly true, at least for me.

Neither of these writers was a religionist nor a proselytizer of any creed or faith. Yet, each seemed quite comfortable in quoting from many creeds; and, each shows us most creeds teach that we are innately holy and we should relax and allow our holiness to be manifest.

I conclude that charity resides in one’s soul and is realized by one’s loving actions toward others.

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