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The Lizard Man

About twenty years ago, while foolishly attempting to write a general theory of migration, I first heard of the labyrinth of invisible pathways that meander across Australia, serving as trade routes and bush telegraphs to link the most far-flung tribes. To Westerners, they are known as “Songlines” or “Dreaming-tracks”: to Aboriginals as “The Footprints of the Ancestors” or “Way of the Law.”

Aboriginal myths tell of the legendary totemic beings who wandered across the country in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path—birds, animals, rocks, waterholes—and so singing the world into existence. Their songs are thought to lie over the land in a continuous chain of couplets: one for each pair of the Ancestor’s footfalls. Every Aboriginal child inherits a number of these couplets as his birthright. In fact, the ownership of a stretch of song confirms his right to the territory described by the song. When a man’s own verses give out, there lies the frontier.

Yet no Aboriginal could conceive of territory as a fixed block of land: rather he saw it as a series of “interlocking lines” or “ways through” along which he could travel in times of emergency, or in order to acquire “fresh blood.” His ability to sing a song was a kind of passport which enabled him to find his way across country, and to receive the hospitality of people who shared his Songline.

There is hardly a feature of the Australian landscape that is not an “event” on one or other of the Songlines: the land itself may be read as a musical score. I felt, while studying it, that this concept of delineating territory through song might have certain implications for the evolutionary origins of language, for musical theory, and for the whole vexed question whether Man has, or has not, an instinctive sense of territory.

The Songlines, the book I finally came up with, was an imaginary dialogue between a narrator (myself) and a companion, Arkady, with whom I traveled in Australia. He was an Australian-born Russian who worked as an adviser on Aboriginal land claims. One of his projects was to ensure that the proposed Alice-to-Darwin railway would not cut through, and so destroy, the sites which were sacred to Aboriginals. One night, Arkady and I were camped beside a rocky hill which is also the eternal resting place of the Lizard Ancestor. With us, but keeping to themselves, were four elderly Aboriginals—Old Alan, Timmy, Big Tom, and the “man in blue.”

* * *

We sat in silence until Arkady, judging the moment, turned to Alan and asked quietly, in English, “So what’s the story of this place, old man?”

Alan gazed into the fire without twitching a muscle. The skin stretched taut over his cheekbones and shone. Then, almost imperceptibly, he tilted his head toward the man in blue, who got to his feet and began to mime (with words of pidgin thrown in) the travels of the Lizard Ancestor.

It was a song of how the Lizard and his lovely young wife had walked from northern Australia to the Southern Sea, and of how a Southerner had seduced the wife and sent him home with a substitute.

I don’t know what species of lizard he was supposed to be: whether he was a “jew-lizard” or a “road-runner” or one of those rumpled, angry-looking lizards with ruffs around their necks. All I do know is that the man in blue made the most lifelike lizard you could ever hope to imagine.

He was male and female, seducer and seduced. He was glutton, he was cuckold, he was weary traveler. He would claw his lizard-feet sideways, then freeze and cock his head. He would lift his lower lid to cover the iris, and flick out his lizard-tongue. He puffed his neck into goiters of rage; and at last, when it was time for him to die, he writhed and wriggled, his movements growing fainter and fainter like the Dying Swan’s.

Then his jaw locked, and that was the end.

The man in blue waved toward the hill and, with the triumphant cadence of someone who has told the best of all possible stories, shouted: “That…that is where he is!”

The performance had lasted not more than three minutes.

The death of the Lizard touched us and made us sad. But Big Tom and Timmy had been in stitches since the wife-swapping episode and went on hooting and cackling long after the man in blue sat down. Even the resigned and beautiful face of Old Alan composed itself into a smile. Then one by one they yawned, and spread out their swags, and curled up and went to sleep.

They must have liked you,” Arkady said. “It was their way of saying thanks for the food.”

We lit a hurricane lamp and sat on a couple of camping-chairs, away from the fire. What we had witnessed, he said, was not of course the real Lizard song, but a “false front,” or sketch performed for strangers. The real song would have named each waterhole the Lizard Man drank from, each tree he cut a spear from, each cave he slept in, covering the whole long distance of the way.

He had understood the pidgin far better than I. This is the version I then jotted down:

The Lizard and his wife set off to walk to the Southern Sea. The wife was young and beautiful and had far lighter skin than her husband. They crossed swamps and rivers until they stopped at a hill—the hill at Middle Bore—and there they slept the night. In the morning they passed the camp of some Dingoes, where a mother was sucking a brood of pups. “Ha!” said the Lizard. “I’ll remember those pups and eat them later.”

The couple walked on, past Oodnadatta, past Lake Eyre, and came to the sea at Port Augusta. A sharp wind was blowing off the sea, and the Lizard felt cold and began to shiver. He saw, on a headland nearby, the campfire of some Southerners and said to his wife, “Go over to those people and borrow a firestick.”

She went. But one of the Southerners, lusting after her lighter skin, made love to her—and she agreed to stay with him. He made his own wife paler by smearing her from head to foot with yellow ochre and sent her, with the firestick, to the solitary traveler. Only when the ochre rubbed off did the Lizard realize his loss. He stamped his feet. He puffed himself up in fury, but, being a stranger in a distant country, he was powerless to take revenge. Miserably, he turned for home with his uglier, substitute wife. On the way he stopped to kill and eat the Dingo puppies but these gave him indigestion and made him sick. On reaching the hill at Middle Bore, he lay down and died….

And that, as the man in blue told us, was where he was.

Arkady and I sat mulling over this story of an antipodean Helen. The distance from here to Port Augusta, as the crow flew, was roughly 1,100 miles, about twice the distance—so we calculated—from Troy to Ithaca. We tried to imagine an Odyssey with a verse for every twist and turn of the hero’s ten-year voyage.

I looked at the Milky Way and said, “You might as well count the stars.”

Most tribes, Arkady went on, spoke the language of their immediate neighbor, so the difficulties of communication across a frontier did not exist. The mystery was how a man of Tribe A, living up one end of a Songline, could hear a few bars sung by Tribe Q and, without knowing a word of Q’s language, would know exactly what land was being sung.

Christ!” I said. “Are you telling me that Old Alan here would know the songs for a country a thousand miles away?”

Most likely.”

Without ever having been there?”

Yes.”

One or two ethnomusicologists, he said, had been working on the problem. In the meantime, the best thing was to imagine a little experiment of our own.

Supposing we found, somewhere near Port Augusta, a songman who knew the Lizard song? Suppose we got him to sing his verses into a tape recorder and then played the tape to Alan in Kaititj country? The chances were he’d recognize the melody at once—just as we would the “Moonlight Sonata”—but the meaning of the words would escape him. All the same, he’d listen very attentively to the melodic structure. He’d perhaps even ask us to replay a few bars. Then, suddenly, he’d find himself in sync and be able to sing his own words over the “nonsense.”

His own words for country round Port Augusta?”

Yes,” said Arkady.

Is that what really happens?”

It is.”

How the hell’s it done?”

No one, he said, could be sure. There were people who argued for telepathy. Aboriginals themselves told stories of their songmen whizzing up and down the line in trance. But there was another, more astonishing possibility.

Regardless of the words, it seems the melodic contour of the song describes the nature of the land over which the song passes. So if the Lizard Man were dragging his heels across the salt pans of Lake Eyre, you could expect a succession of long flats, as in Chopin’s “Funeral March.” If he were skipping up and down the MacDonnell escarpments, you’d have a series of arpeggios and glissandos, like Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies.”

Certain phrases, certain combinations of musical notes are thought to describe the action of the Ancestor’s feet. One phrase would say, “Salt pan,” another “Creek bed,” “Spinifex,” “Sandhill,” “Mulga scrub,” “Rock face” and so forth. An expert songman, by listening to their order of succession, would count how many times his hero crossed a river, or scaled a ridge—and be able to calculate where, and how far along, a Songline he was.

He’d be able,” said Arkady, “to hear a few bars and say, ‘This is Middle Bore’ or ‘That is Oodnadatta’—where the Ancestor did X or Y or Z.”

So a musical phrase,” I said, “is a map reference?”

Music,” said Arkady, “is a memory bank for finding one’s way about the world.”

I shall need some time to digest that.”

You’ve got all night,” he smiled. “With the snakes!”

The fire was still blazing in the other camp and we heard the burble of women’s laughter.

Sleep well,” he said.

And you.”

I never had so much fun,” he said, “as I do with my old men.”

I tried to sleep but couldn’t. The ground under my sleeping bag was hard and lumpy. I tried counting the stars around the Southern Cross, but my thoughts kept returning to the man in blue. He reminded me of someone. I had the memory of another man miming an almost identical story, with the same kind of animal gestures. Once, in the Sahel, I had watched some dancers mime the antics of antelopes and storks. But that was not the memory I was looking for.

Then I had it.

Lorenz!”

* * *

The afternoon I met Konrad Lorenz he was working in his garden at Altenberg, a small town on the Danube near Vienna. A hot east wind was blowing from the steppe. I had come to interview him for a newspaper.

The “Father of Ethology” was a gristly silver-spade-bearded man with arctic blue eyes and a face burned pink in the sun. His book On Aggression had outraged liberal opinion on both sides of the Atlantic—and was a gift to the “conservatives.” His enemies had then unearthed a half-forgotten paper, published in 1942, the year of the Final Solution, in which Lorenz had pressed his theory of instinct into the service of racial biology. In 1973 he had been awarded the Nobel Prize.

He introduced me to his wife, who set down her weeding basket and smiled, distantly, from beneath the brim of her straw hat. We made polite conversation about the difficulty of propagating violets.

My wife and I,” he said, “have known each other since childhood. We used to play at iguanodons in the shrubbery.”

He led the way toward the house—a grandiose, neobaroque mansion built by his father, a surgeon, in the good old days of Franz Josef. As he opened the front door, a pack of rangy, browncoated mongrels rushed out, set their paws on my shoulder, and licked my face.

What are these dogs?” I asked.

Pariah dogs!” he muttered grimly. “Aach! I would have killed the whole litter. You see that chow, over there? Very fine animal! Grandparent a wolf! My wife took her round all the best chow studs in Bavaria to look for a dog. She refused them all…and then she copulated with a schnauzer!”

We sat in his study, where there was a white faience stove, a fish tank, a toy train, and a mynah bird whooping in a cage. We began with a review of his career.

By the age of six he had read books on evolution and become a convinced Darwinian. Later, as a zoological student in Vienna, he specialized in the comparative anatomy of ducks and geese: only to realize that they, in common with all other animals, also inherited “blocs” or “paradigms” of instinctive behavior in their genes. The courtship ritual of a mallard drake was a “set piece.” The bird would wag its tail, shake its head, bob forward, crane its neck—performing a sequence of movements which, once triggered off, would run their predictable course and were no more separable from its nature than its webbed feet or glossy green head.

Lorenz realized, too, that these “fixed motor patterns” had been transformed by the process of natural selection and must have played some vital role in the survival of the species. They could be measured, scientifically, as one measured anatomical changes between one species and the next.

And that was how I discovered ethology,” he said. “Nobody taught me. I thought it was a matter of course with all psychologists, because I was a child and full of respect for other people. I had not realized I was one of the pioneers.”

Aggression,” as Lorenz defined it, was the instinct in animals and man to seek and fight—though not necessarily to kill—a rival of their own kind. Its function was to ensure the equable distribution of a species over its habitat, and that the genes of the “fittest” passed to the next generation. Fighting behavior was not a reaction but a “drive” or appetite—which, like the drives of hunger or sex, would build up and demand expression either on to the “natural” object, or, if none were available, on to a scapegoat.

Unlike man, wild animals seldom fought to the death. Rather, they would “ritualize” their squabbles in displays of tooth, plumage, scratch marks, or vocal calls. The intruder—providing, of course, he was the weaker intruder—would recognize these “Keep Out!” signs and withdraw without a scene.

A defeated wolf, for example, had only to bare the nape of his neck and the victor could not press home his advantage.

Lorenz presented On Aggression as the findings of an experienced naturalist who knew a lot about fighting in animals and had seen a lot of fighting among men. He had served as an orderly on the Russian front. He had spent years in a Soviet prisoner-of-war camp, and had concluded that man was a “dangerously aggressive” species. War, as such, was the collective outpouring of his frustrated fighting “drives”: behavior which had seen us through bad times in the primeval bush, but was lethal in an age of the H-bomb.

Our fatal flaw, or Fall, he insisted, was to have developed “artificial weapons” instead of natural ones. As a species, we thus lacked the instinctive inhibitions which prevented the “professional carnivores” from murdering their fellows.

I had expected to find in Lorenz a person of old-fashioned courtesy and blinkered convictions, someone who had marveled at the order and diversity of the animal kingdom and decided to shut out the painful, chaotic world of human contacts. I could not have been more mistaken. Here was a man as perplexed as any other, who, whatever his previous convictions, had an almost childlike compulsion to share the excitement of his discoveries, and to correct faults of fact or emphasis.

He was a perfect mimic. He could project himself beneath the skin of any bird or beast or fish. When he imitated the jackdaw at the bottom of the “pecking order,” he became the wretched jackdaw. He became the pair of greylag ganders, entwining their necks as they performed the “triumph ceremony.” And when he demonstrated the sexual seesaw of chiclid fish in his aquarium—whereby a “Brunhild of a fish” refused the timid advances of her partner, yet turned into a simpering, all-too-submissive maiden the instant a real male entered the tank—Lorenz became, in turn, the “Brunhild,” the weakling and the tyrant.

He complained of being misinterpreted by people who read into the theory of aggression an excuse for endless war. “This,” he said, “is simply libelous. ‘Aggressivity’ is not necessarily to do harm to your neighbor. It may just be a ‘pushing away’ behavior. You can effect the same consequences simply by disliking your neighbor. You can say, ‘Wauch!’ and walk away when he croaks back. That’s what frogs do.”

Two singing frogs, he went on, would remove themselves as far as possible from each other, except at spawning time. The same was true of polar bears, which, fortunately for them, had a thin population.

A polar bear,” he said, “can afford to walk away from the other chap.”

Similarly, in the Orinoco, there were Indians who would suppress tribal warfare with “ritual” exchanges of gifts.

But surely,” I butted in, “this ‘gift exchange’ is not a ritual to suppress aggression. It is aggression ritualized. Violence only breaks out when the parity of these exchanges is broken.”

Yes, yes,” he answered enthusiastically. “Of course, of course.”

He took a pencil from his desk and waved it toward me. “If I give you this gift,” he said, “that means ‘I’m territorial here.’ But it also means, ‘I have a territory and I am no threat to yours.’ All we’re doing is fixing the frontier. I say to you, ‘Here I put my gift. I’m not going any further.’ It would be an offense if I put my gift too far.”

Territory, you see,” he added, “is not necessarily the place you feed in. It’s the place in which you stay…where you know by heart every refuge…where you know every nook and cranny…where you are invincible to the pursuer. I’ve even measured it with sticklebacks.”

He then gave an unforgettable performance of two angry male sticklebacks. Both were unbeatable at the center of their territory. Both became progressively more fearful and vulnerable as they strayed from it. They would skirmish to and fro until they found an equilibrium and afterwards keep their distance. As he told the story, Lorenz crossed his hands under his chin, splaying his fingers to imitate the stickleback spines. He colored at the gills. He paled. He inflated and deflated, lunged and fled.

This was the imitation, of the impotent, retreating stickleback, that had reminded me, at Middle Bore, of that cuckolded Lizard Man, who had strayed from his own home country and lost his lovely wife to a stranger.

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