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Escaping a dystopian present: compensatory and anticipatory utopias in Bruce Chatwin's The Viceroy of Ouidah and The Songlines.

THIS ARTICLE EXPLORES Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines (1987) and The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) in terms of their representation of and engagement with forms of utopian thinking. Whilst there is also scope for discussing In Patagonia (1977) in terms of utopia, I have chosen these texts because they each present a different aspect of Chatwin's utopian theorising and In Patagonia shares characteristics with each of these texts. I suggest that Chatwin's texts display a preoccupation with utopian thought, both compensatory--offering a form of individual escape or alternative to the present set of social arrangements imagined as dystopian; and anticipatory--imagining a time in which a dystopian present will be replaced by another form of living. Chatwin's texts predominantly represent this utopian future in terms of the nomadic--not necessarily a pastoral nomadism or transhumance but as a specific practice: as a way of living lightly upon the earth with few possessions, avoiding the 'unnatural' restrictions of a settled lifestyle. This article provides a reading of the ways in which Chatwin's texts represent this anticipatory dreaming and its grounding in a critique of certain properties of Western modernity. Conversely, Chatwin also depicts individual characters attempting to escape from a dystopian modernity through the acquisition of possessions, where objects act to insulate the individual from reality. These purely compensatory forms of utopian dreaming are, ultimately, seen to fail, being isolating and repressive of the self or of others. Analysing such moments of failure will serve to illustrate the need for utopian dreaming to avoid replicating the repressive power structures of the dystopian present and the need to move beyond individual escapism towards concrete social change.

This reading will prove fruitful in offering a way of avoiding the problematic arguments surrounding the status of the texts (i.e. fiction or non-fiction, travel writing or novel), foregrounding instead the extent to which his texts engage with certain social questions, critique aspects of late capitalism and suggest possible alternatives, countering those who regard his work as merely shallow posturing or technical contrivance. Faced with the text's gender stereotyping and cultural appropriation of Aboriginal knowledge, existing critical commentaries tend to overlook the depth of Chatwin's social critique of a problematic Western modernity and also the text's anticipatory utopianising. This approach to Chatwin's texts also provides a way of assessing the failures and contradictions inherent in Chatwin's critique; for example, his failure to address questions of subjectivity and to move beyond a binary discourse through which utopia becomes limited to the white, Western, intellectual male.

Whilst my reading of Chatwin falls outside of the usual approaches to his work, the utopian tendency in Chatwin's texts has also been noted, though not explored further, by Catherine Bernard. Bernard states that: "Chatwin's work is quite logically and quite literally, a utopian one, beyond any kind of referential space, beyond any chartable frontiers. It explores the Coleridgean and post-Romantic/Baudelairean lands of inner exile" (68). This notion of inner exile is an important concept within Chatwin's work, although my reading of Chatwin with regards to the referentiality of his texts differs markedly from that of Bernard. In The Concept of Utopia, Ruth Levitas argues convincingly for a material and historical basis for utopian thought: "Utopia is a social construct which arises not from a 'natural' impulse subject to social mediation, but as a socially constructed response to an equally socially constructed gap between the needs and wants generated by a particular society and the satisfactions available to and distributed by it" (181-82).

Rather than being "beyond frontiers", utopian thought, in its various literary forms, is a response to the material conditions and historical context of the writer and the implied reader. Growing up in Britain during the Cold War period of the 1950's, and producing his five full-length works (two travelogues and three novels) between 1977 and 1988, Chatwin is necessarily writing out of a specific historical moment. Each of these texts is concerned with the representation of characters living on the margins of, and often trying to escape from, modern society, and the representation of marginal spaces. Discussing Chatwin and Paul Theroux, both of whom he reads in terms of a post-imperial, post-war, anxiety over national loyalties and national belonging, Tim Youngs argues that Chatwin's "decentralisation" of himself as a writer, i.e. his concentration on peoples and places on the periphery of the developed world, is "far from being simply a personal quirk" (75). Rather, "The willed (which is not to say actual) removal of oneself from the centre ... [is] a powerful cultural impulse felt by many in the United States and Western Europe since the 1950's" (75). Chatwin's decentralisation of both himself as a writer and the characters of his texts is a move against certain aspects of Western modernity, as he perceives it. This critique is implicit rather than explicit, and tends to be diffuse. Chatwin is perhaps less interested in exploring theoretical aspects of modernity than in exploring its dystopian transformations as they impact upon his characters and their attempts at resistance. Due to the complexities surrounding the term, I have chosen to talk about modernity as a general term that can be equated with the cultural and economic characteristics of the West from the renaissance onwards. Chris Shilling provides a concise definition that echoes my own understanding of the term: "Modernity has been referred to generally as those modes of social life and organisation which emerged in post feudal Europe, but which have in the twentieth century become increasingly global in their impact. Modernity can be understood roughly as the 'industrialized world', although it consists of several institutions which have their own specific trajectories" (2). Within this broad definition of modernity, the industrialised societies referred to are, as Anthony D. King argues, "usually though not necessarily market/capitalist" (110).

Chatwin highlights certain aspects of modernity in his textual depictions of a dystopian present. Specifically, he posits an alternative to the industrialised world's reliance on the values of property, settlement and material acquisition. Such values are equated in his texts with a restriction of the individual's ability to wander, with colonialism--as a desire for land and material wealth--and with an alienation from the natural world--leading to environmental destruction. Chatwin depicts modernity threatening and often destroying native cultures through the accelerating forces of globalisation. The utopian qualities of Chatwin's texts are constructed in response to these aspects of modernity.

It is not the aim of this paper to explore in detail current theoretical perspectives on utopia. However, the existence of widely differing concepts of what constitutes utopian thought and the theoretical re-formulations concomitant with the recent growth in utopian studies, makes it necessary in order for me to define my own reading of utopia with reference to Chatwin's texts. Utopia has been defined variously in terms of form, function, and content. These problems of definition partially emanate from the instability of the boundaries between this genre (if indeed it is a genre) and other forms of writing such as social planning, revolutionary tracts, fantasy, and satire. The form and function of utopia also vary with the social and cultural context. In his discussion with Theodor Adorno on utopian longing, reproduced as "Something's Missing", Ernst Bloch argues for a broad definition of utopian literature and the need to "'move out' of the 'home base' (Stammhaus) of the utopias, namely the social utopias ... in order to see the other regions of utopia that do not have the name 'technology'" (5-6). In The Principle of Hope, Bloch develops a definition of utopia that is based on function rather than form. This enables Bloch to identify the utopian properties of music, painting, architecture and, importantly for this discussion, literature. In The Principle of Hope, Bloch argues that works of art are utopian in that they anticipate what is to come: "art drives its material to an end, in characters, situations, plots, landscapes, and bring them to a stated resolution in suffering, happiness, and meaning. Anticipatory illumination is this attainable thing itself because the metier of driving-to-the-end occurs in dialectically open space, in which any object can be aesthetically depicted" (214-5). Thus literature can go beyond the present set of social relations, depicting what has yet to be realised. As Levitas notes in her discussion of Bloch and his impact on utopian thought, he goes as far as to include "daydreams, myths and fairy-tales as well as travellers' tales and literary utopias" and "such diverse topics as the sea voyages of medieval Irish monks and alchemical attempts to synthesise gold" (84-5). Bloch's work thus suggests the possibility of a "spectrum of utopian wishes", as Levitas terms it (85), that can include wishful thinking and "dreams of a better life" (The Principle of Hope 11). It also suggests that the pursuit of individual happiness undertaken by various characters in Chatwin's texts can be examined as a form of utopian dreaming. This individual utopian dreaming that contains no notion of collective change will be referred to throughout this paper as personal utopian dreaming. Bloch's identification of the utopian impulse behind works of art other than social utopias will prove useful in examining how far a text such as The Songlines is attempting to go beyond the present set of social arrangements.

It is important to note that Bloch introduces a number of terms that narrow the above broad definition. As indicated by his notion that art can anticipate what is to come, Bloch argues that utopian thought should be anticipatory, not just compensatory: it is the looking forward to, or anticipatory consciousness of, that which is both not yet thought and not yet become that is important. As Levitas explains, Bloch's "... designation of utopia as 'anticipatory consciousness' ... depends on Bloch's central concept, the Not Yet. It has two aspects, the Not-Yet-Conscious and the Not-Yet-Become--its ideological and material, or subjective and objective aspects" (86). Two other terms Bloch uses to differentiate between types of utopia are "abstract" and "concrete". According to Levitas, Bloch uses "abstract" with "compensatory" to pejoratively describe utopian thinking that cannot be realised and "concrete" with "anticipatory" to describe utopian thinking that has a transformative function (88-9). These terms are not to be seen in absolute alterity but as being complexly interwoven in each manifestation of utopian dreaming. Whilst a detailed exploration of Bloch's terminology is beyond the scope of this article, these terms will prove useful in analysing the function of utopian dreaming as it is manifested in Chatwin's texts.

Any use of Bloch's work must note that he ignores the need to consider how types of utopian dreaming function in different historical contexts. For such an analysis it is necessary to turn to a more recent theorist such as Tom Moylan, who, in his work on science fiction, examines how and why the form of the literary utopia alters with the historical context. This article will make use of Moylan's work, specifically his discussion of critical utopias and critical dystopias as utopian responses to the historical context, as it serves to illuminate aspects of Chatwin's texts.

The Viceroy of Ouidah and the Failure of Personal Utopian Dreaming

One text that shares some characteristics with the critical dystopia, as described by Moylan, is The Viceroy of Ouidah. This text, Chatwin's first novel, has received little critical attention despite articulating the urge to travel and seek out alternative realities that Chatwin goes on to develop in his later, more influential, work. The Viceroy of Ouidah concentrates upon Francisco da Silva's search for an alternative to a dystopian modernity.

Da Silva is closely based on the Brazilian slave-trader Francisco de Souza, who became the King's Viceroy at Ouidah in Dahomey (now Benin). (1) Chatwin's most significant deviation from his source material is the downward trajectory of da Silva's career. Unlike da Silva, de Souza's career as a slaver and as the King's Viceroy was an unmitigated success. As Samuel Decaldo notes, de Souza "prospered enormously and upon his death (8th May, 1849) human sacrifices were offered for him in Whydah" (52). Da Silva's decline is central to the text's critique of a dystopian modernity: this text illustrates a compensatory personal utopian dreaming, but also the failure of this utopian dreaming if based on the individualist and materialist values of the dystopian present. This text thus pre-empts many of the questions concerning the desirability and transformative value of personal utopian dreaming raised by Utz (1988), Chatwin's final full-length work.

Da Silva is an ambitious character whose notion of utopia is one of wealth and luxury. Born to a peasant family in the "backlands" of early nineteenth century Brazil, da Silva's desire for material possessions is given its basis in the abject poverty, droughts and repressive class structure he experiences as a child. As a young man, he becomes acquainted with Joaquim Coutinho, heir to a beef factory and a vast empire of sugar estates. Joaquim introduces da Silva to a world of wealth, property and influence beyond his wildest dreams: "On the verandah there were aviaries of song-finches; and in the dining room vases of blue-glazed porcelain, gilded pilasters and panels the colour of lapis lazuli.... And... [da Silva] imagined he had stumbled on Paradise" (Chatwin, The Viceroy of Ouidah, 59).

Da Silva's notion of Paradise shares characteristics with "The Land of Cockaygne"--a medieval poem that represents a popular "peasant" utopia in which a person's needs are met without effort, so that, for example, cooked larks would drop straight into one's mouth and rivers would run with honey. It thus functions as an escape from the poverty of the real world, but contains little notion of social or collective change. (2) Similarly, da Silva has no desire to change the existing social order, only to place himself outside its restrictions.

Da Silva's paradise, however, is not a paradise without its serpents: this is a paradise built on the proceeds from an industry dependent on slavery and, within the factories, on the exploitation of poor Brazilians. Through the presentation of the obnoxious, duplicitous Coutinhos, Chatwin makes it explicit that wealth and property do not go hand in hand with happiness, generosity or morality.

It is while he is staying with Joaquim that da Silva is first made aware of the existence of Dahomey and the possibilities offered by travel. Facing poverty and thwarted in his ambitions by Brazil's class structure, he takes an opportunity to travel to Dahomey as an agent for a slaving company. As Rana Kabbani observes, the colonies have traditionally provided a home (both historically and in fiction) for those marginalised by society or seeking adventure: "the colonies provided niches for misfits, for unruly or impoverished sons.... Such men could rise to distinction and exercise power in the colonies in ways that would have been unimaginable in their own birthplaces" (9). Although her comments apply specifically to the Islamic East, Africa functions in a similar manner in this text. Chatwin's text suggests that travel and exploration can, as Bloch suggests, be a utopian urge for a better life. The sea voyage to a far off land is also a traditional conceit of utopian fiction and Ouidah seems at first to fulfil its promise as a marginal space removed from the class structures of contemporary Brazilian society in which da Silva can build his personal utopia.

Once at Ouidah, da Silva is able to pursue his desire for wealth and property and, with his profits from slavery, he is able to fulfil all his material needs. In this marginalised space, da Silva is able to construct himself as a member of the upper classes. He is now in the position to attain the levels of respect and recognition he has desired for so long if only in the small kingdom of Dahomey rather than in his homeland: "No captain could evade the vigilance of his coastguards. None could load a slave without paying an export tax, or land a bale of cotton without paying him a due. His promissory notes were honoured by bankers in New York or Marseille" (Viceroy 96). He is described as assuming "the manners and style of a Brazilian seigneur", and "though the title 'Dom' was usually reserved for members of the Portuguese Royal Family" da Silva assumes the name of 'Dom Francisco' (Viceroy 95).

It is made explicit in the text that da Silva's utopia is built on another's subjection, specifically the subjection of the slaves he trades. The political implications of slavery are subsumed in this text by its concentration upon the individual and the psychological. However, da Silva's moral, and later physical, degeneration acts as an implicit commentary on the abhorrent nature of the slave trade. More problematically, Chatwin also depicts da Silva's utopia as a place of sexual liberation, peopled by exotic, erotic natives. Da Silva's taking of a number of African brides should not be read as unusual. As Ronald Hyam notes, it was relatively common for colonial agents to regard colonial spaces as an opportunity for sexual conquest and experimentation. However, it must be noted that there is no sense of ethnographic accuracy (although the objectivity of ethnography itself as a science has increasingly come to be questioned) in Chatwin's description of Dahomean women and society; rather he offers a stock description of African exoticism and savagery. Thus, despite his arguments against aspects of modernity, specifically settlement and materialism, which he explicitly links to colonial expansion, Chatwin replicates more subtle forms of colonialist discourse, a factor that must be considered when addressing how far Chatwin's texts offer a sustained critique of a dystopian modernity.

Despite its problematic troping of race and gender, The Viceroy of Ouidah contains a level of sustained critical reflection on the nature and function of utopian dreaming which parallels aspects of the 1970's critical utopia. In Demand the Impossible and, more recently, Scraps of the Untainted Sky, Moylan argues that critical utopias consider the faults and contradictions of the utopian society, not just those of the hegemonic order, putting "the principle of self-critique on the utopian agenda" (Scraps of the Untainted Sky 88). Chatwin's text similarly questions the desirability of certain types of personal utopian dreaming. Da Silva's new life in Ouidah does not prove to be the utopia that he had imagined and as the text progresses, it becomes positively dystopian. Whilst his possessions initially serve as a form of compensatory utopia, offering the wealth and security he desires, they also isolate him from other people and prevent him from leaving Africa. Da Silva is ill at ease with the luxury he installs at the fort: sparing no expense to entertain the Brazilian captains who stay at the fort and dine in the dining room lit with silver candelabra, but feeling unable to join them (similarly, on a rare visit to Western Europe, the excesses of capitalism and its reliance on self-interest alienate Utz, despite his love of possessions). Da Silva's importation of many of the negative values of the modern world proves dystopian not only for himself but for those over whom he has power in that he is able to partially recreate the inequalities and barbarities of modernity in Dahomey. As a member of the African court, da Silva is able to engage in a form of social planning, building his own ideal African society. This initially appears a positive step in that da Silva works hard to improve the infrastructure of the city; bringing to it a degree of order and civilisation, digging drains and altering the street layout.

Again, da Silva seems to be acting out his utopian urges; creating the ideal city. However, da Silva's efficiency and taste for improvement demonstrated above stretches further than these fairly benign changes in that he also manages to turn Dahomey into the most efficient military machine in West Africa. Through da Silva's actions, Chatwin explicitly links the aptitude and infrastructure needed to run a cohesive and efficient civilisation with that needed to run an effective army. As Dahomey 'improves' under Western influences, so does its capacity for war: the ad hoc brutality (like the ad hoc streets) of former times is replaced by a ruthlessly mechanistic campaign of war. Da Silva's partial social utopia has a negative impact on Dahomey's neighbours.

The closing chapters of the text narrate the final reversal in da Silva's fortunes: his large house, vast array of possessions and extensive family can only provide a limited escape from reality. Abandoned by his sons; outwitted and double-crossed by Jacinto, his former employee; da Silva is forced to relinquish control of his newly founded palm oil business and to stand back as the King's tax collectors remove all his silver and gold. In addition to this, da Silva can no longer return to Brazil because his Brazilian citizenship has been allowed to lapse, and he is wanted as a criminal for illegally trading in slaves. Suddenly a broken old man, da Silva realises that his wealth, power, and influence do not guarantee that once these acquisitions have gone the same levels of respect and deference will be maintained. Da Silva eventually finds happiness of a sort in his final years through an abandonment of worldly ambition and a return to simplicity. Shorn of all his wealth and influence, he finds companionship with Dona Luciana, a Brazilian widow. Da Silva is not, however, allowed to live 'happily ever after' even within his simple poverty. The text does not criticise da Silva's attempts to escape the constraints of Brazilian society, but suggests that in founding his utopian dreams upon the inherently dystopian values of the modern world, i.e. property, materialism, and settlement, he be bound to fail. This text suggests that personal utopian dreaming, whilst it may provide a limited individual escape and raise important questions about the desirability of the present set of social arrangements, must not replicate the negative values of the society we are trying to escape or reform.

Despite da Silva's cruelty and greed and ultimate failure, Chatwin renders him admirable in his attempts to escape poverty and oppression. Importantly for any discussion of The Viceroy of Ouidah in terms of critical utopia or dystopia, Chatwin's negative portrayal of modernity is not confined to nineteenth century Brazil. Through the framing narrative present in the text, in which da Silva's descendants celebrate their ancestor's birthday, a vital pre-modern Dahomey is contrasted with contemporary Marxist Benin. During the feasting, a radio in the background spews out the State's Marxist-Leninist political assertions in the form of a presidential address, which contrast with drunken comments from the party guests. Combined with the combat-booted General at the close of the text, crushing the life out of a cockroach under his heel, Chatwin obliquely portrays a dystopian African present. Rather than represent a utopian alternative, Marxist Benin is depicted as being dependent on the values of settlement, materialism, conformity, and state control of the individual. It is implied that there would be no place for da Silva to act out his personal utopian dreaming in Marxist Benin. This brief depiction of Marxist Benin again indicates Chatwin's suspicion of the State and other forms of collective organisation. This suggests that Chatwin concentrates on individual attempts at evading a dystopian modernity because he believes collective movements restrict individual freedom.

Despite this suspicion of collective organisations, the text implies through da Silva's failure that it is perhaps not enough for utopias to be compensatory, they must also be anticipatory: not just escaping, but going beyond the values of present society. Whilst barely imagined in the text, the values that a future utopian alternative may contain are briefly indicated through Chatwin's depiction of the African savannah. As a marginal space, Africa operates on two separate levels appearing not just as tribal settlements, but as the savannah or plains. This opposition is not unique to Chatwin but can be seen within imperialist literature and various non-fictional discourses about Africa. Gail Ching-Liang Low notes how the African savannah or veldt was commonly troped by writers such as Rider Haggard as a "garden where the original perfection of man can be recovered" (40). Although da Silva's moments with Kankpe (the King of Ouidah's brother) in the grasslands represent only a few pages of the text, they are significant in that it is here that Chatwin presents his alternative to the dystopias or failed utopias outlined above. In comparison with Ouidah, the landscape da Silva finds himself in is Edenic and reminds him of the open spaces of home: "He went for walks in the sere rolling hills where long-homed cattle were grazing. Far out to the west an escarpment crinkled the horizon into facets of purple and blue. The land reminded him of the Sertao, but here the thorn-trees had orange bark and the thorns were long and white and seemed to be shining" (Viceroy 89). This landscape is the home of Kankpe, who, before he is corrupted by wealth, power and kingship, is representative of an ideal pattern of masculine individualism and is the antithesis of the oppressed subject within modernity. Again, this utopian future is imagined in terms of the individual. Unadorned by possessions or decoration of any kind, he is completely at home on the grasslands: "They heard him before they saw him, striding through the grass-blades. A freshly killed antelope widened the trapeze of his torso: a breechclout of brown leather merely emphasized his nakedness" (Viceroy 89). Whilst da Silva only finds brief respite, the utopian aspects of life in the grasslands include its anti-materialism and harmony with nature. (3) An unresolvable tension between a suspicion of all collective organisations and an acknowledgement of the failure of personal utopian dreaming without wider social change can thus be observed. This tension can also be observed in The Songlines, a text in which the notion of an anticipatory utopia based on alternative values to that of the modern materialist West is developed most fully.

An Arcadian Past/An Arcadian Future

Based on a series of journeys into the Northern Territory Chatwin undertook during the mid 1980's, The Songlines is an account of a journey into the central Australian deserts, narrated by 'Bruce'--biographically approximate to Chatwin. Arkady, a land rights worker and initiate of secret Aboriginal knowledge, accompanies him. The text opens in the scorching streets of Alice Springs where imported 'Western' modern values preside. The modem, urban setting is rendered in explicitly negative terms: Alice Springs is "not a very cheerful town either by day or night". The "horses and hitching posts" have been replaced by "a dreary, americanised strip of travel agents, souvenir shops and soda fountains" (30). Against this background of a dystopian present, Chatwin explores humanity's past, present and possible future, and this is the closest he comes to producing a critical utopia as described by Moylan. Whilst Chatwin's fragmentary postmodern travelogue does not fit easily into the category of the literary utopia, it does contain some formal indicators of its engagement with this tradition. A mixture of philosophical enquiry and fiction, Chatwin identified the text's structural models as Diderot's dialogic novel Jaques le Fataliste and Plato's Symposium and The Apology (Meanor, Bruce Chatwin, 92). Arkady, whose name is a pun on Arcadia, serves an important role in the text's dialogic structure. The dialogue between the narrator and Arkady moves the text into the realm of philosophical debate as it raises and attempts to answer questions about human nature and the nature of society. Questions of "how shall I/we live" are questions commonly raised by utopian fiction and, here, the notion of utopian alternatives to a dystopian settled present is primarily realised through the notion of the nomadic. This is developed through both a portrayal of deserts as visionary spaces and the depiction of nomadic Aboriginal culture as a locus of alternative values that highlight the dystopian nature of the present and provide a blueprint for the future.

Whilst the body of the narrative concentrates on the Australian desert and its Aboriginal inhabitants, the notebook sections, constructed from quotations from various sources and travel anecdotes, approach deserts on a metaphorical level and explore their properties as visionary spaces where individuals can gain spiritual enlightenment. (4) The narrator describes his time in Africa among the nomadic Beja people, where, lying on the plains under the stars, far removed from modernity, he experiences a sense of "homecoming" (Songlines 18). In the notebook sections that follow, this sense of homecoming is translated into a complex argument about the nomadic origins of man. In a moment of spiritual revelation 'Bruce' vows to devote his life to the study of nomads. It is in passages such as this that Chatwin comes closest to presenting the narrator as a shaman figure: the narrator's solitary existence can be seen as a necessary exile from society in order to discover and pronounce upon society's ills. Unlike the village shaman, Chatwin's narrator does not work on the level of the local and the particular, but, disavowing social origins and class positioning, pronounces for the whole of humanity. As Youngs notes, this detachment is illusory (74). As explored above, Chatwin's notion of an anticipatory utopia is necessarily dictated by the society his utopia is a reaction against. Youngs argues that Chatwin is reacting against "not only against the materially acquisitive nation of the former imperial centre, but against the materialistic middle class of which he was also an itinerant member" (76). Chatwin's position as a white, middle-class male also proves a problematic element in his utopian theorising as discussed below.

Rather than representing a place of banishment constructed against a cultivated Garden of Eden, the "visionary" reading stresses the purity of the desert in the light of its material sparseness. Chatwin articulates his argument against materialist settled civilisations, portrayed as dystopian, by constructing an opposition between the city and the plains/desert. He amasses textual evidence to support the purity of the plains as opposed to the corruption of the city: as the home of nomadic tribes, the lateral, egalitarian space of the desert is contrasted to the hierarchical space of the city with its kings and class structure. Chatwin contrast what he perceives as the slave-based system of the Ancient Egyptians with the egalitarian lifestyle of the desert Bedouin who roam near the pyramids: "The tradition of the camp-fire faces that of the pyramid. Martin Buber, Moses" (Songlines 186, italicised in original). By narrating the fall of empires in the face of nomadic invasions, cities and settled civilisations are seen to be ephemeral, passing aberrations that will be outlived by the timeless nomads.
   Passing Persepolis I looked at the fluted columns, the porticoes,
   lions, bulls griffins; the sleek metallic finish of the stone, and
   the line on line of megalomaniac inscription: 'I ... I ... I ... The
   King ... The King... burned... slew ... settled ...'

   My sympathies were with Alexander for burning it.
   Again I tried to get the Quashgai boy to look. Again he shrugged.
   Persepolis might have been made of matchsticks for all he knew or
   cared--and so we went up to the mountains. (Songlines 186,
   italicised in original)

Chatwin's reading of the desert as a non-hierarchical, liminal space opposed to the stratified space of civilisation as a centre of power thus corresponds with recent postmodernist/poststructuralist readings of nomadic spaces. Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and, more recently, lain Chambers also explore desert spaces as lateral, non-hierarchical spaces that can offer a radical critique of modern Western culture. Chambers stresses the anticipatory utopian aspects of the desert, seeing it as offering a space of relative values, where the old certainties of modernity can be overturned. In the desert there are no absolute truths and he argues that it "seduces us with the idea we can start out over again, begin from Zero" (87). Thus the desert can operate as a space where names are called into question: a place removed from stable cultural meanings in which identities become dissolved and the lack of an overarching unitary truth offers the possibility for new forms of freedom.

Whilst Chatwin's postmodern travelogue thus shares many similarities with postmodern/poststructuralist theorising of the desert as a space of utopian possibility, his relation to such readings is problematic. Unlike Deleuze and Guattari, for whom the nomos (the nomadic) in the form of the war-machine serves to threaten the polis or State apparatus (being not wholly opposed or exterior to the polis but always in relation; and often appearing within the State as a moment of revolution), Chatwin's nomadism appears to exist wholly outside of the State as non-threatening and non-revolutionary. For Deleuze and Guattari, "nomad thought" is multiple, rhizomatic and concerned with deterritorialisation: the nomad is never singular but part of a pack or multiplicity, gaining his/her identity as part of the mass or pack or the war-machine. Although often concerned with communities of nomads, Chatwin abandons the many for the singular, installing the self-identical masculine subject at the centre of the narrative. Whilst evincing a postmodern concern with the individual and micro-political, as discussed further below, Chatwin does not engage in a postmodern questioning of subjectivity. In Tourists with Typewriters, Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan note that this retention of a stable 'I' is common within otherwise 'postmodern' travel texts. Whilst acknowledging the "unstable narrative ground" such texts occupy, they argue that: "postmodernist devices have not so consistently infiltrated the travel book as they have the contemporary novel" (157).

Whilst the abstract, metaphorical presentation of desert space contained within the notebook sections is important for expressing fluidity and possibilities beyond social control (if limited by Chatwin's failure to challenge the notion of a stable, humanist subject), it is only one aspect of Chatwin's text. The body of the narrative evinces an interest in deserts as actual, peopled places. The Aboriginal cultures that occupy these desert areas serve as a locus of nomadic values that represent a utopian alternative to modernity. The Songlines shares this interest in desert peoples with texts such as Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky (1949), and Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (1959) among others. These texts represent a tradition of desert writing that, in its search for alternative values to modernity, pre-empts many of the concerns of the later theorists. For these writers, the North African and Middle Eastern deserts appeared, in the 1940's, as places that had remained protected from change due to their harsh remoteness. In positing the lifestyle of indigenous peoples as inherently utopian, Chatwin can also be placed within an established utopian tradition. Denis Diderot's Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage (1796), for example, describes an imaginary Tahiti inhabited by a people untouched by outside civilisation living a life of happiness free from the corrupting influences of luxury, property, religious and moral laws.

The concept of the songline is, as the title suggests, central to Chatwin's exploration of Aboriginal culture. This centrality lies in the ability of the songline to absorb all Chatwin's theorising of the modern and its utopian alternative. "The songline" is a term utilised (and popularised) by Chatwin for a 'tjieringa line' or dreaming track. (5) These tracks or lines are extremely complex, being at once a map, a long narrative poem and the foundation of Aboriginal religious and traditional life, reflecting the paths of the ancestors. As Arkady explains: "Each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the line of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as 'ways' of communication between the most far-flung tribes" (Songlines 13). The songlines also aid physical survival by acting as maps to show waterholes and routes for migration. They are, as Chatwin conceives them, essentially nomadic structures in that they function through being walked and sung. The narrator comes to the conclusion that "in theory, at least, the whole of Australia could be read as a musical score. There was hardly a rock or creek in the country that could not or had not been sung" (Songlines 13).

Chatwin's interpretation of the Aboriginal songline as a nomadic structure corresponds to Deleuze and Guattari's linking of the nomadic with paths or ways through in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: "The nomad has a territory; he follows customary paths; he goes from one point to another; he is not ignorant of points (water points, dwelling points, assembly points, etc.).... although the points determine paths, they are strictly subordinated to the paths they determine, the reverse of what happens with the sedentary" (380).

The partial correspondence between Deleuzeian theory and Chatwin's concept of the songlines highlights the possible function of this concept as a locus of alternative values. Chatwin depicts a different concept of tenure than that which apportions land to particular owners and establishes boundaries to prevent movement across it: "Aboriginals, it was true, could not imagine territory as a block of land hemmed in by frontiers: but rather as an interlocking network of 'lines' or ways 'through" (Songlines 56). Graham Huggan (1991) explores Chatwin's use of alternative or non-Western mapping strategies as a way of deconstructing mapping as an 'objective' discourse. He argues that The Songlines evinces a concern for: "the impact of cultural bias on spatial perception and their more immediate interest in the relation that exists in different cultures between graphic (written) and graphemic (non-written) modes of spatial representation" (58). In suggesting alternative forms of mapping, Chatwin indicates that our way of perceiving land and territory is not objective but culturally encoded. If territory is imagined as a network of lines or ways through and as something that is given specifically to one person and cannot be traded, then the notion of territorial warfare becomes an anathema, as does the notion of colonial expansion. It must, however, be noted that, whilst offering a theoretical challenge to Western notions of territory and mapping, the conceptualisation of the songlines, in challenging the notion of property, may serve to undercut Aboriginal land claims. As Paul Carter argues, notions of Aboriginal non-ownership of land served to facilitate Australia's colonisation by Europeans who did not recognise Aboriginal communities as having a claim upon the land since they did not seem to be engaged in farming or actively exploiting its resources or even to name and divide the landscape (64).

Chatwin also uses the Aboriginal relation to land, as he understands it, to counter the modern Western notion that the natural environment is something radically 'other' to the self, which can be used and abused with impunity. The songlines offer an alternative to the dualistic structure of a modern, Western philosophical tradition (in which self and landscape and culture and nature are opposed) by utilising a theology that, in contrast to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, inextricably links religion, land and self-identity. (6) The identity of the Aboriginal characters cannot be separated from the place of their birth: it is the land and its stories that tell them who they are. Arkady summarises their earthbound philosophy for the narrator: "'To wound the earth', he answered earnestly, 'is to wound yourself, and if others wound the earth, they are wounding you'" (Songlines 11). The life of the Aborigine, even the modern Aborigine, is thus equated with that of the wanderer and is seen to offer an alternative to present-day society. Aboriginal society appears as a golden age in which our own alienation from the earth is replaced by a spiritual symbiosis. (7) Chatwin's presentation of Aboriginal culture is thus partially a rearticulation of the romantic or modernist stereotype of the "noble savage". The "noble savage" serves as a repository of 'natural' values through which modern Western man, perceived as degenerate, can be regenerated. Chatwin moves away from this problematic stereotype by explicitly dwelling on the Aborigine's present material circumstances. Chatwin's Aborigines are sympathetically depicted struggling with poverty, alcoholism and social problems caused by racism and unemployment. (8)

Whilst Chatwin represents Aboriginal nomadism as a locus of alternative values to those of a materialist, imperial modernity, this text does not propose that humanity return to a nomadic hunter-gatherer culture or pattern of transhumance. As Chatwin depicts it, this return is largely unavailable even to Aborigines due to the effects of assimilation. (9) They are seen to be living in a fallen state; irrevocably damaged by their proximity to Western man and the loss of their traditional lands. As Alison Russell notes, Chatwin is not attempting to 'salvage' Aboriginal culture in its entirety (85). In the face of globalising modernity, the 'authentic' is increasingly unrealisable. Chatwin argues, however, that the Aborigines' anti-modern nomadic values are preserved in their oral tradition. Whilst Aboriginal life cannot be returned to how it was before the colonisation of Australia, its culture is represented as an "alternative reality" (91).

Despite arguing that we are all 'essentially' nomadic Chatwin does not suggest that Western humanity can adopt a traditionally nomadic lifestyle. Throughout The Songlines, Chatwin ironises the various attempts of the narrator to cope with the harsh desert landscape. Whilst partly undercutting the narrator's heroic discourse, this use of irony does not qualify the utopian nature of the text, but it does indicate the form this utopia is to take.

The originality of Chatwin's theorising of the nomadic lies in his notion that nomadic traits are to be adapted to form an individualist practice constructed in opposition to a restrictive settled modernity. This concentration on individual practice rather than collective social change can be read as an example of the shift in the 1980's from the macro to the micro-political. It has also become a defining feature of much art and literature labelled as postmodern. Moylan traces this trend in literary utopia, arguing that the micro politics of the 1980's and early 1990's stemmed from the failure of the left and consolidation of the right across Europe and America, before noting the shift to the critical dystopia, with its more collective voice, that followed (Scraps of the Untainted Sky 183-90). In an environment in which collective change appears increasingly unrealisable, the focus shifts to personal, individual change. Chatwin presents a forceful theoretical argument for humanity's essentially nomadic nature and collective nomadic past to bolster his argument that individual nomadism represents a realisable way forward. To return to the definitions offered by Bloch, Chatwin's anthropological account of the nomadic serves to suggest that his vision of a nomadic future represents a concrete not just an abstract utopia. That the lessons of a nomadic past are to be used to create a utopian future is made explicit in a conversation between the narrator and Arkady:
   The smile was a message from the Golden Age. It had taught me to
   reject out of hand all arguments for the nastiness of human nature.
   The idea of returning to an 'original simplicity' was not naive or
   unscientific or out of touch with reality. 'Renunciation', I said,
   'even at this late date, can work.'

   'I'd agree with that,' said Arkady. 'The world, if it has a future,
   has an ascetic future. (Songlines 133)

As with many literary utopias, The Songlines does not reveal how society is to progress from a dystopian present to a utopian future. This may qualify the 'concrete' quality of Chatwin's vision by questioning how far it could actually be realised.

How this future nomadic utopia may look if achieved is presented through the lifestyle of rootless and homeless intellectual figures such as Arkady, Ralph, and the narrator. Exotic and intellectual, their arcane and idiosyncratic knowledge sets them against a mundane and conformist modern world. Arkady has typically exotic parentage with a Cossack father who emigrates to Adelaide. Described as being completely unsuited to domestic life in suburbia, he also boasts an impressive catalogue of travels, which appear to follow a typical sixties 'dropout' itinerary: "He saw the Buddhist temples of Java, sat with saddhus on the ghats of Benares, smoked hashish in Kabul and worked on a Kibbutz" (Songlines 3).

Chatwin perceives this homelessness as a form of freedom realised in the face of a dystopian modernity. However, the ability of Chatwin's individualist figures to engage in this trans-national wandering is dependent on technologies such as air travel and the very forces of globalisation that his characters are depicted fleeing to the margins of the modern world to escape. This is one of the many paradoxes contained within Chatwin's theorising of the nomadic. This notion of a celebratory homelessness can also obscure differences of power and privilege. As Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift argue: "What is still a landscape of constraint for most people is redefined as a landscape of movement and mobility by those for whom movement and mobility are unproblematic" (24). Similarly, Holland and Huggan suggest that the will to theorise seen in texts such as The Songlines, "indicates a utopian impulse that is the product ... of a "worldly" intellectual elite" (ix).

Despite Chatwin's liberal interest in individual freedom and his identification of nomadic structures with a possible utopian future, his texts contain much that is static and prescriptive. Problematically, nomadic individualism as Chatwin imagines it, and thus his conception of an anticipatory utopia, is limited to certain subject positions, namely the white, Western, male intellectual. Chatwin's future utopian idyll is limited to those who have already escaped the repression of modernity through education, money and opportunity. In his prescription for a modern nomadic lifestyle, Chatwin's nomadic heroes are thus all very similar: they have read the same books, have the same ideals, and travel to the same places. In some ways, Chatwin's nomadic utopia, with its insistence on movement, appears as restrictive in its way as the settled bourgeois society he is reacting against. This lack of self-reflexivity, or failure to address his own rather problematic assumptions about what is good is interesting when explored in terms of utopian theory. Gorman Beauchamp identifies this static quality as a common tendency within utopian thought, referring to it as a "will-to-uniformity". He argues that: "For the utopian theorists, disagreement, disorder, conflict are inherently bad; unity, order, harmony are inherently good" (219). However, the description of both the critical utopia and critical dystopia offered by Moylan indicate that this will-to-uniformity is not a necessary part of utopian writing. Moylan suggests that critical utopias and dystopias, the former especially, avoid projecting a static, fully delineated future, but concentrate instead on the complex of arguments concerning power and agency involved in any move towards a utopian future. The static nature of Chatwin's utopian ideals is not then a result of its engagement with the utopian form, but perhaps rather the result of the precedence of Chatwin's masculinist and Eurocentric nomadic Grand Narrative. Complexity is sacrificed to the unity of artistic vision. By comparison, The Viceroy of Ouidah is much less successful as a literary work of art, but, as we have seen, is able to question certain aspects of utopian thought including the imposition of one's own utopian dreams onto others.

I suggest, however, that the problematic nature of Chatwin's texts, whilst important to understand, does not entirely negate their utopian value. Although his gender, racial, and class stereotyping limit his presentation of nomadic individuals, the types of freedom he imagines can inspire those that do not fit his narrow stereotype of the wanderer. As Moylan argues for science fiction, I argue that Chatwin's representation of alternative value systems to modernity "... generates a distanced space that can draw willing readers away from the society that produces and envelops them" (Scraps of the Untainted Sky 30). As in The Viceroy of Ouidah, whilst broader political movements remain largely unarticulated, Chatwin asserts the power of the individual to enact some form of resistance.


Whilst deeply problematic in their portrayal of women and non-Western cultures, Chatwin's texts appear to contain some degree of utopian thought in their dissatisfaction with certain aspects of modernity and their representation of alternative values. They also contain many characters that construct their own personal utopian worlds. Reading his texts in this way allows us to explore both the critical aspects of Chatwin's texts and to identify their problematic status. In The Viceroy of Ouidah Chatwin does not overtly address the question of a utopian future and, yet, reading this text in terms of utopian theory reveals da Silva's actions to be a response to a dystopian modernity and thus deepens our understanding of character and text. As we have seen, this text, inadvertently it seems, also raises many questions about utopias and the form they may take. For example, it highlights the problems of prescription: da Silva has too fixed a view of what represents happiness, building his personal utopia on the materialist values of modernity. Whilst unexplored within the text, the contradictions and ultimate failure of da Silva's dreams can usefully inform our own understanding of the problems of realising utopian change. The Songlines also proves useful in thinking about future utopian societies and the problems that any move towards utopia would encounter. Whilst engaging much more overtly with the utopian literary tradition, The Songlines, portraying Chatwin's highly individual notion of a utopian future, does not depict the complexities and problems of utopian thought in the way that The Viceroy of Ouidah is able to. Rearticulating repressive racial and gendered stereotypes, Chatwin imagines his utopian future in terms that limit it to white, male, intellectual nomads, despite claiming that it is a future for all. Thus this text can also be used to illustrate the problem of prescription, this time implicitly rather than explicitly. This difference in complexity is perhaps a result of formal choices. As a novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah appears less didactic and more interested in character. The paradoxes of da Silva's personal utopian dreaming are not artificially resolved in favour of an overarching unitary argument as in The Songlines, in which Chatwin is trying to argue a case for nomadism.

As has been illustrated above, both The Songlines and The Viceroy of Ouidah display an unresolved tension between the individual and the collective. The Viceroy of Ouidah serves to qualify the desirability of a personal search for utopia: our dreams for freedom can be isolating, they can rely on the oppression of other people and they can impose their own restrictions or become morally dubious and dangerously apolitical. However, personal utopian dreaming is depicted as the only form available within a system that limits collective movements for change and in which collective movements themselves are perceived as ultimately restrictive of individual wishes. As Moylan argues for the critical utopia (Scraps of the Untainted Sky 55), Chatwin's failure to resolve many of the questions that his texts raise leaves them to be carried off the page as it were and into actual social reality.


(1.) Initially, Chatwin planned a straightforward biography of de Souza. However, an absence of records (they had all been destroyed in a fire) and the unstable political situation in Benin forced Chatwin to change genre from biography to fiction.

(2.) A detailed account of this tradition is provided by Sargent.

(3.) Chatwin's representation of nomadism and the landscape is problematically gendered. The savannah is troped as a masculine space as opposed to the explicitly feminine space of the jungle/city. This gendering, whilst discussed briefly here in terms of its impact on the utopian quality of Chatwin's texts, is part of Chatwin's complex and gendered discourse of movement and settlement, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this article.

(4.) Haynes argues that descriptions of the desert traditionally fall into two opposing prototypes: the wilderness image, which sees the desert as the harsh, inhospitable place to which Adam and Eve were banished after the Fall, and the visionary image, where the desert is a place of spiritual enlightenment (26).

(5.) Chatwin's presentation of the songlines is an interpretation of Aboriginal culture, suited to Chatwin's broader nomadic thesis. Whilst documented, the songlines are regarded as secret knowledge that is not to be passed on lightly and thus Chatwin would have had to rely on secondary sources (see Shakespeare 1999). Chatwin's primary source of information on the songlines was, according to Shakespeare, the work of Australian anthropologist Theodor Strehlow (Shakespeare 409). In Strehlow's work (out of print and only made available to Chatwin through Strehlow's sister), Aboriginal thought is necessarily mediated by a non-Aboriginal perspective. This already distanced concept of the songlines is further fictionalised by Chatwin as he adapts the concept to his own purposes.

(6.) Haynes provides a detailed account of Aboriginal theology in terms of the relationship between self and environment.

(7.) Meanor argues that each of Chatwin's texts reconfigures Man's 'Fall' from an Edenic nomadic state to a settled 'fallen' existence. Whilst Meanor's discussion occasionally elides the complexities of Chatwin's argument, his reading recognises Chatwin's dystopic presentation of the modern world.

(8.) Whilst Chatwin portrays the situation of the Aborigines as pretty desperate, Bruce's journeying takes place in the Northern Territory, which is where the land rights campaigns had been most successful. The decision of the 1967 referendum to extend full citizenship rights to Aborigines heralded the theoretical end of assimilation and, with land rights as its basis, proved the foundation for Aboriginal self-determination (Young 148). However, most of the territory returned to the Aborigines consisted of very poor quality land that was both unfit for pastoral use and poor in natural resources. It is into such a context of high hopes, small advances and almost overwhelming difficulties that Chatwin's depiction of Aboriginal culture must be placed.

(9.) Even within the work of Bowles and Thesiger, the nomadic cultures they describe are partially retrospective. Both writers explored the Sahara in 1933 and even then, the desert was a space compromised by modernity. These journeys would not be written up until much later when the nomadic world they describe was rapidly vanishing.


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Title Annotation:Essays
Author:Williams, Marie
Publication:Utopian Studies
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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