Books, On the Road

Bruce Chatwin and Nomads

Is restlessness the human condition? Or not?

Bruce Chatwin aspired to write a book about the nomadic instinct but died before he ever managed to put all of his thoughts together. He left behind rambling essays that examine the history of the nomads on the Mongolian steppes, the origins and functions of their shamans and the malaise of modern civilisation now that we’ve largely forgotten how to move.

There’s a passion to Chatwin’s writing that sustains his ideas even when he has difficulty tying them together. He’ll extol the superiority of the Mongolian horsemen over the corrupt society of farmers it plunders and then skip to images of the London tramp who must roam at all costs. Or the babies of the Kalahari Bushwomen who never cry because their mothers keep them in motion and how modern parents unconsciously imitate the rhythms of migration by rocking their babies to sleep.

‘Evolution intended for us to be travelers. Settlement for any length of time, in cave or castle, has at best been a sporadic condition in the history of man… we are travelers from birth. Our mad obsession with technological progress is a response to the barriers in the way of our geographical progress.’

Chatwin turns to the words of great travelers and mystics from the days of old to back up his thesis:

He who does not travel does not know the value of men.‘ (Ibn Battuta)

‘The great affair is to move,’ (Robert Stephenson)

‘Nobody was a prophet who was not first a shepherd.’ (Mohammed)

The heavens themselves run continually around, the sun riseth and sets, stars and planets keep their constant motions, the air is still tossed by the winds, the waters ebb and flow … to teach us that we should ever be in motion.‘ (Robert Burton)

And as travelers we sympathise with Chatwin’s struggle to get at the heart of the matter, even when the writing goes beyond his or the reader’s depth. In essence, Chatwin wants to understand his own restlessness and even if he gets a bit grandiose in the process, it’s understandable for a wanderer to search for his place in the great scheme of things.

The same urge occupies most road junkies, after all.