Bruce Chatwin’s Songline

Post by Wanda Smit

A songline is a track that Australian Aborigines walk, singing their territories and their lives into creation, much like the Essenes danced their world into creation. As a travel writer, Bruce Chatwin walked his life into being. He travelled to territories little known in the 1970s such as Afghanistan, Patagonia at the southernmost tip of South America and Swartkrans in South Africa where the earliest hearth was discovered. Married and bisexual, Chatwin was one of the first prominent men in Great Britain known to have died of AIDS.

Born in Sheffield, UK, on 13th May, 1940 at 8:30pm


The Grasshopper

The chart looks like the head and neck of some stick insect, perhaps a grasshopper. Referring to Chatwin’s constant moving around, a friend described him as “The Mother of Grasshoppers”. First Chatwin moved from flat to flat to do his writing, then from country to country to gather unusual stories, driven by the cardinal motivation of his linear chart. He despised being held back and would be a nomad his entire life.

Yet by nature he has a fixed motivation with a staggering surplus of 50! This seems like a contradiction, but fortunately, his environment enabled his peripatetic lifestyle as suggested by the House chart which is predominantly mutable. Nurture played a great role in his peripatetic life. As a child growing up during the last years of WW2, his father, a lawyer, had joined the Royal Naval Reserve. Bruce and his mother moved around from relative to relative for safety’s sake.  “Home, if we had one, was a solid black suitcase…” he wrote. “Why do I become restless after a month in a single place, unbearable after two?” was the question which became the theme of his books. It would remain unanswered. (Jupiter would have answered: to expand your horizons.)

Nicholas Shakespeare mentions in his Bruce Chatwin biography that Chatwin’s Archaelogy professor felt he was running away from himself. Sometimes, people with linear charts are prone to action for action’s sake. When Chatwin returned from Czechoslovakia, for example, rather than relax at home with his wife, he immediately revamped the garden with countless plants, bushes and trees, working himself to the bone. Or was being at home with the wife against – cite_note-171his nature when he knew he preferred relationships with men? He wrote: “…for inspiration I fall back on Baudelaire’s proposal (…) for a ‘study of the great malady, horror of one’s home.’”

The head of the grasshopper is in the 6th to 9th houses and indeed his work, which ultimately became his service to others in the books he wrote, was all important. He has 3 planets, including Saturn, in the 6th house, all squared by the Moon and Pluto in the 9th house. The bigger picture was vital to him, but with the Moon and Pluto in an intercepted Leo in the 9th house, the only outlet for his vast views was into his work where Jupiter and Saturn can enjoy the gifts of Mars in Gemini and Venus in Cancer, compliments of the two sextiles from the 8th house.

His Eye

His eyes are often mentioned in the biography. They were large, blue eyes that sparkled. Adds his editor, Susannah Clapp in With Chatwin: “To some, lassoed by a compulsive Chatwin story, they were the glittering eyes of the Ancient Mariner…” Chatwin himself saw them as “the MAD MAD eyes of a nineteenth-century explorer.” At Sotheby’s, he was known to have an ‘eye’ for fakes.

In the House chart, his Moon and Pluto form an Eye aspect figure with his Neptune and his Mars, making him aware of his creativity (Neptune) and his drive to walk the earth and achieve what he wanted: gather interesting stories (Mars in Gemini).

The Eye is at the top of a Detective aspect figure. The Hubers’ Aspect Pattern Astrology states: “A detective can discover the smallest clue, insignificant information and slight alterations and incorporate them into a large jigsaw puzzle.” This describes Chatwin accurately and mirrors the words of his biographer: “Bruce’s talent was to dig up extraordinary facts and link them.” “He was an intellectual gibbon who swung from connection to connection with incredible ease,” said a friend.

His Temperament  

Chatwin’s nomadic life is a good reflection of the excess of fire (-3) and earth (-21!) in his temperament. He explored several different themes in his work. They include human restlessness and wandering (fire); borders and exile; and art and objects (earth). Even his prose style was earthy. John Updike described Chatwin’s writing as “a clipped, lapidary prose that compresses worlds into pages.” In a letter to his wife, he wrote about Patagonia: “Imagine climbing (as I did) a cliff face 2000 feet high, alternately striped vanilla, strawberry and pistachio in bands of 100 feet or more. Imagine an upland lake where the rock face on one side is bright purple, the other bright green. With cracked orange mud and a white rim.”

The water in Chatwin is scarce (1) and several mentions are made in his biography of the lack of emotion in his writing. Although much of it is autobiographical, the reader never gets under the skin of the writer.

His Soul’s Journey

In spite of his high fixed motivation, as well as the nine planets on the YOU-side, Chatwin followed the path with heart – the one pointed out by the North Node – to like-minded people: archaeologists, writers, nomads, exiles and people living at the margins. He felt trapped in a society – English, married, materialistic – whose values were not his own but which he constantly returned to. Most of his planets are in the upper hemisphere, so home was not where his heart was. As a travel writer, his international perspective set him apart and opened other worlds for readers.

The only planet on the I-side is Neptune. Although Chatwin started his working life with Sotheby’s, he soon felt he wanted to give expression to his creativity, which eventually turned him into an authority in travel writing. Whether he lived up to Virgo’s meticulousness in this genre is arguable. Critics often challenged the truth of his books. Were they fact or fiction?  But Chatwin insisted he was a storyteller, not a historian.

Shifts in Consciousness

It was at the home of his paternal grandparents when his age point was traversing the 2nd house of possessions that he came across curiosities which fascinated him, particularly the “piece of brontosaurus” (actually a mylodon, a giant sloth) sent to Chatwin’s grandmother by her cousin from Patagonia, a part of the world that would henceforth fascinate Chatwin.

He was an unexceptional student, but attained  A-levels in Latin, Greek, and Ancient History. He had hoped to read Classics at Merton CollegeOxford, but the competition for university places was a hurdle. His father arranged an interview for Chatwin at the auction house Sotheby’s and Chatwin secured a job there. He would now become deeply interested in art and archaeology, an introduction to his excavations later in his life.

In 1958, when his age point had entered the 4th house, Chatwin moved to London to begin work at Sotheby’s. His work as a cataloguer taught him to describe objects in a concise manner and required him to research these objects. Soon he was promoted to higher positions.

Travel offered him a relief from the British class system. The 4th house’s family, community and tradition are opposed in his radix by Neptune, his sense of creativity. More inspiring in his life was Byron’s book The Road to Oxiana, which took him to the then unknown Afghanistan several times. He became friends with artists and art collectors and dealers. He travelled much to other countries to acquire interesting pieces for the auctions, but when his Neptune was opposed in 1961, “I suddenly had a horror of the so-called ART WORLD” he wrote to a friend. He developed acute eye problems, as if he didn’t want to see any more art.

In February 1965, when Saturn made him aware of more down-to-earth energies, Chatwin left for Sudan. It was on this trip that he first encountered a nomadic tribe He would remain fascinated by their way of life. “My nomadic guide,” he wrote, “carried a sword, a purse and a pot of scented goat’s grease for anointing his hair. He made me feel overburdened and inadequate …”

Then the Moon blessed his consciousness (1965) and upon his return, he married Elizabeth Chanler an American secretary at Sotheby’s who knew of and accepted his bisexuality.  Her love of travel and her independent nature appealed to Chatwin. She was also immensely kind as Chatwin’s Venus in Cancer suggests. Being in the 8th house, his Venus would pay her dues to him, remaining a close friend even after they separated. Chatwin maintained he had never loved anyone else.

He left Sotheby’s in 1966 when his age point made him aware of Mercury and learning. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh to study Archaeology, but found the rigour of academic archaeology tiresome: it was too left-brain for his nature. Although highly intelligent according to several people, including his writer friend, Salman Rushdie, he was not scholarly. Could it be the lack of air in his temperament? He left university during the opposition between his consciousness and the North Node in 1968, as if his studies were the opposite of the knowledge his soul wanted.

In 1969 and 1972, Chatwin travelled extensively and pursued other endeavours in an attempt to establish a creative career. His age point on the cusp of the 6th house in 1970 made him aware of work. He has three planets in the 6th house suggesting that service to others was vital to him. And with Jupiter there, fired up by Pluto in the 9th house, his adventures would have to give the bigger picture of the nomadic existence. In his Radix, both Saturn and Mercury are activated by the Moon, indicating what kind of work was closest to his heart: down-to-earth work as a gatherer of artefacts and later as an excavator who would write stories others found interesting. Throughout his biography it is mentioned how he loved to tell stories. Some found his loquaciousness exhausting, others loved it, such as Werner Herzog, the film director who would turn Chatwin’s novella The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) into a film titled Cobra Verde (1987).

The major shift in his consciousness happened at the time of the C1 in 1972 when The Sunday Times Magazine hired him as a journalist, having seen his articles on nomads in Afghanistan and photographs of Mauritania. He travelled the world for their work and interviewed figures such as the politicians Indira Gandhi and André Malraux. At last he could do what he enjoyed most: travelling and writing. But it was still their work and not his.

After the low point in the 6th house in 1974, he left the magazine to visit Patagonia. His consciousness was brimming with Mercury (1974) and Uranus (1976).  In Patagonia he travelled around and collected stories of people who came from elsewhere and settled there. When his age point encountered his Sun in 1977, Chatwin published his first book, In Patagonia, which made a name for him as a travel writer, injecting new energy into the genre.  It also won him two awards and the praise of writers such as Graham Greene and Paul Theroux.

In the late 1970s Chatwin spent an increasing amount of time in New York City, having short affairs with several men – his age point was traversing the 7th house of close relationships. In 1977 when his age point conjoined his Sun, he began his first serious affair with Donald Richards, an Australian stockbroker. Although Elizabeth Chatwin had accepted her husband’s affairs, their relationship deteriorated and at the low point of the 7th house, she asked for a separation.

In the next book, Chatwin would change his tack. Now that he was a free man, rather than nomads, he would write about people who never left home. Published in 1982 when his age point was on the cusp of the 8th house, Chatwin paid his dues to his fixed motivation with On the Black Hill, a novel of twin brothers who live their whole lives in a farmhouse on the Welsh borders. It was an excellent tribute to the fixed 8th house. /He won several prizes for this book which was made into a film in 1987 when he was already fatally ill.

In 1983 his age point sextiled the North Node and Chatwin followed his path with heart to Australia, now focusing on Aboriginal Australians, specifically on their songlines or dreaming tracks. Chatwin saw it as a metaphor he could use to support his ideas about humans’ need to wander, which he believed was genetic. In 1984 when his creative Neptune was firing up his consciousness, he started writing The Songlines. It was also the beginning of his health problems – the onset of AIDS – and his fear of this disease drove him to finish the book, published in 1987. Said Salman Rushdie: “That book was an obsession too great for him … His illness did him a favour, got him free of it.” In the book Chatwin mentions his awareness of death. “I had a presentiment that the ‘travelling’ phase of my life might be passing.” The book became a bestseller in both the UK and USA.

A few months before his consciousness encountered the essence of his Mars (1985), he was excavating with the South African archaeologist, Bob Brain. Together they found proof of the first fire made by mankind 1.2 million years ago, the earliest by 700,000 years. What a find it was for Chatwin with all that fire in him! It was, he maintained, the highlight of his life.

When his consciousness was filled with his Cancerian Venus in 1986, he experienced the loving care and kindness of his wife during the beginning of his illness. She would be there for him until his death. This time was probably the most loving period in Chatwin’s life.

At the low point of the 8th house, he went to Switzerland, where he collapsed on the street. A Swiss clinic diagnosed him as HIV-positive. He was one of the first famous gay men to contract AIDS and was not willing to reveal the truth. He wanted to protect his parents, who were unaware of his homosexual affairs.

In the last years before his death in 1989, he did an about turn in his idea of possessions. He had always known that possessions tie one down, but now that he couldn’t travel anymore, he acquired many new objects, ostensibly for his wife to inherit. It seems that finally his strong fixed motivation came to the fore. He wrote his last novel Utz which deals with the obsession of people to collect, in this instance, Meissen porcelain. Utz was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Chatwin died at a hospital in Nice on 18 January 1989. His ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel in the Peloponnese.


Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinean writer, appeared in a television programme with Chatwin, which he prefaced with a parable that sums up Chatwin’s songline perfectly: “A man sets out on a quest to discover the world. Through the years he populates a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses and people. A little before his death he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines traces the images of his face.” And of his chart, we might add.