A continent of metaphysicians – and their apprentices

James Cowan (1989 ‘Mysteries of the Dream-time: Spiritual Life of the Australian Aborigines’) has written:


“Recognizing the Dreaming as a living reality, however, demands a fundamental shift in the attitudes of everyone concerned. It requires, firstly, that the Dreaming is seen for what it is: a metaphysical statement about the origins of mankind as a spiritual being.”


Cowan’s words ring true to me. In my analysis of Warumungu systems of relationships – in which Being is signified by Dreamings – it looked to me that the concerns were about relationships of a higher order than those whose conceptions of ‘reality’ were rooted in biology or other Western notions of bodily life.


The origins of mankind as a ‘spiritual being’ however, may suggest that this event was something like the origins of some other cultural feature – say, the acquisition of cooking fire. That is, to suggest a prior condition – some kind of ‘animal’ or otherwise ‘incomplete’ level of existence.


It is far to easy, in these secular times, to ‘blow away’ any reference to man as a spiritual being. Too easy to dismiss. What brand of ‘spirituality’ would you prefer? “Spirituality” is set against materially real in these days – and thus is put in the category of ’unreal’.


In posing the issue as one which smuggles in through the back door what we are attempting to dispose of via the front door, we may fail to properly address the problem which confronts us.


Metaphysical spiritual Being


Rather than man as a spiritual being, with origins as developing out of some prior condition, what happens if we regard Dreaming as a metaphysical statement about life as an existential Being, of which we have always been.


That is, in place of a modern materialist interpretation which dominates our imaginary origins – we need to learn to see our true origins as part of life emerging as a signifying being (and that materialist means of interpreting experience are one of the means by which we signify but not one which enjoys are privileged position vis-à-vis all other contenders).


Cowan goes on to say:


“So long as the Dreaming is regarded merely an as assortment of myths that have little more than a quixotic value for the rest of Australians, then the Dreaming will always be demeaned as a metaphysical event. Men and women of goodwill, both European and Aboriginal, must begin to regard the mysteries of the Dreaming as being important in their own lives in the here-and-now. They must begin to see the Dreaming as a spiritual condition, rather than simply as a word denoting the creation-time of Aborigines. Indeed, the idea that Dreaming is an on-going metaphysical, rather than an historical event is the only way this change can be brought about.” (Cowan 1989:119-120)



While I am personally not inclined to become too ‘spiritual’ about all this, I do agree with Cowan that we need to learn to fully appreciate the great and lasting value of the high achievement of First Peoples in their comprehensive mapping of where things fit into life – and of the corresponding challenge for our comparatively simpleminded means of interpreting experience to transcend our own limitations and come up with new systems.


For me the trans-signification of life which is clear in First Peoples systems of signification demonstrates a through-going respect for ensuring that all aspects of life are categorized in their proper place. While modern Western means of categorization produce ‘things’ First Peoples Ways insist that ‘things’ must be in their proper place.


There is not a system in which a natural or material ‘thing’ has an additional message attached (it belongs in this particular niche) but, rather, a highly polished system of categorization which relates a figure or text to its generative context. This is the highest form of art.


Categories within such systems operate on a higher level – one which respects a host of existential factors of the kind modern science insisted on being jettisoned (in order to better understand life!).


Naturalism is a cultural code which seeks to strip other messages away from our means of interpreting experience.


Life as lived, on the other hand, went in completely the opposite direction to that of the parlor games of modern science. It is crucially important that we relate to the rest of life with systems of signification which do not systematically make a mockery out of the whole of life.


In agreeing that First Peoples Ways can be viewed as the collective work of countless metaphysicians (acting as eco-wizards when restoring balance was called for) the way is not necessary opened up for New Agers to assume they can simply embrace First Peoples as kindred spirits.


Acts of cultural partnership presume that relationships are underwritten, and produced by, genuine systems of reciprocity – that is, the balanced exchange of ‘things’ of real value. Expropriating Dreaming runs contrary to the spirit of cultural partnership. Inserting oneself into the position of expert in indigenous Dreaming knowledge is not the way to go.


Rather, re-balancing life carries ‘lesser’ roles. Learning from life’s masters is one such role.


One aspect to the task at hand is to enable and empower those who – as a result of choices made by life itself – have come to embody Dreaming knowledge and law.



Mens songs – in the higher keys of life.


In his book “Dark Emu” Bruce Pascoe says words to the effect  – “we have a chance to catch a glimpse of Australia as Aboriginals saw it.”

I share the spirit of this very important challenge – catching a glimpse or two can serve to restructure entire fields of knowledge by methods which mere data collecting and modern social theorising never will.

Part of the glimpse process is to ‘see’ the western frameworks of interpretation which have to be transcended in order to let some life through. We have to learn to see life in this country on its own terms and not those which systematically privilege modern Western master narratives.

In other words, we have to stop looking at life so hard with our Westernised eyes. These eyes turn dancing forms of energy into inert things.

David Turner has written about his experiences in learning to see with dancing eyes.

Rather than trying to accommodate First Peoples Ways into Neolithic Western categories (farmers, agriculturalists) as Bruce Pascoe does in his book “Dark Emu” I regard First Peoples as being involved in the production of higher level messages of an entirely different type to those which emerged in a Neolithic transformation of part of life.

Life within orthodox First Peoples Ways stands in an entirely different relationship to that necessary for horticulture, agriculture, farming etc. I regard First Peoples as operating on a higher level than agriculture.

The songs and ceremonies of senior men are songs in the key of life – ensuring a finely-tuned cosmos. The songs are higher practices which ensure that the everyday practices which make up our lives are appropriately formed according to an age-old life design. One that has keep this planet of ours in extremely good shape over a vast period of time.

What is striking, in regard to the harvesting of tubers and grains, is that these activities may be predominantly women’s activities. Strehlow Senior noted that the gathering/harvesting of certain roots was the principal food of the women. I am uncertain about the harvesting of grains, but the grinding of grains is certainly something well within women’s domain.

Anthropologists such as Annette Hamilton have written on the existence of these two worlds.

The complementary opposition between men’s and women’s social universes is certainly a highly marked feature of First Peoples Ways in Central Australia. Of course, there is a fully functioning form of co-existence between these two social and cultural universes.

In modern Western Ways, especially at this time, the movement for accepting women into the core of men’s domains, is regarded as the right and proper path for life to take. It is not necessarily how things function in other viable socio-cultural life formations.

I have pondered before – in light of contemporary cross-cultural alliances – if the conceptual distance between the women’s world – a fully cultured world without a shadow of a doubt – is somehow closer to that of the modern secular worldview. And this closeness and system of alliances results in senior men being excluded from their rightful place in life.

As i travel in Central Australia i am struck by how much of what is on public display about traditional Dreaming narratives is from the women’s side of life. This is a very rich tradition and exists on a high existential level as a complement to the secret-sacred law of senior men. But much of the secret-sacred law of senior men remains restricted to initiated men and is not so readily visible.

This is no reason to treat it as non-existent.

Traditionally any male who had not been initiated was, irrespective of his age, still a ‘boy’ in the eyes of the senior men. Much of the present debates about First Peoples rights are conducted by people who are not initiated into the original system of laws carried by senior men.

I also fail detect any substantial respect for senior lawmen on the part of at least some non-indigenous feminists including those who presume to be able to talk about the rights of First Peoples, men included. Much of the modern human rights agenda is based on presumptions about rights which apply only to peoples-without-countries.

While posing as a cross-cultural dialogue, discussions about First Peoples rights far too often conducted in English by people who find no discomfort in the lack of the voices of senior indigenous lawmen in these discussion, but who also feel no compulsion to learn the languages spoken by surviving senior lawmen.

In other words, where we should be hearing the voices of senior indigenous lawmen speaking in their own languages, an entirely Western monologue by privileged people fills the entire space with talk of ‘the nation’ and similar bounded categories entirely alien to the world-views of First Peoples.

The voices of senior men need to be heard in their own right – not as interpreted by others (included me). The task for people like me is to create spaces for their voices to be heard by Western ears.

To hear the voices of senior lawmen we have to leave our modern comfort zones and go the extra mile. I believe the rewards will be well worth the effort for those of us who accept the major life challenge of regaining our singing cosmos.