Diversions of a Naturalist

Source: Sir Ray Lankester, Diversions of a Naturalist (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1915), pp. 29-31

Text: I recently was present at a lecture given to the Anthropological Institute in London by Professor Baldwin Spencer, of Melbourne, with whom I was closely associated when he was a student at Oxford thirty years ago. He has devoted many years to the study of the Australian natives, and ten years ago published a most valuable work describing his experiences amongst them, to which he has recently added a further volume. He has lived with them in friendship and intimacy in the remote wilderness of the Australian bush, and has been admitted as a member of one of their mysterious clans, of which the “totem,” or supposed spirit-ancestor, is “the witchety grub “—a kind of caterpillar. He has been freely admitted to their secret ceremonies as well as to their more public “corroborees” or dances, and has been able (as no one else has been), without annoyance or offence to them, to take a great number of cinema-films of them in their various dances or when cooking in camp or paddling and upsetting their canoes, and climbing back again from the river. Many of these he exhibited to us, and we found ourselves among moving crowds of these slim-legged, beautifully-shaped wild men. The film presented some of their strange elaborate dances, which soon will be danced no more. These wild men die out when civilized man comes near them. It appears that they really spend most of their time in dancing when not looking for food or chipping stone implements, and that their dances are essentially plays (like those of little children in Europe), the acting of traditional stories relating the history of their venerated animal “totem,” which often last for three weeks at a time! Whilst dancing and gesticulating they are chanting and singing without cessation, often repeating the same words over and over again. Here, indeed, we have the primitive human art, the emotional expression from which, in more advanced races, music, drama, dancing, and decorative handicraft have developed as separate “arts.”

The most remarkable and impressive result was obtained when Professor Baldwin Spencer turned on his phonograph records whilst the wild men danced in the film picture. Then we heard the actual voices of these survivors of prehistoric days—shouting at us in weird cadences, imitating the cry of birds, and accompanied by the booming of the bull-roarer (a piece of wood attached to a string, and swung rapidly round by the performer). A defect, and at the same time a special merit, of the cinema show of the present day is the deadly silence of both the performers and the spectators. Screams and oaths are delivered in silence; pistols are fired without a sound. One can concentrate one’s observation on the facial expression and movements of the actors with undivided attention and with no fear of startling detonations. And very bad they almost invariably are, except in films made by the great French producers. On the other hand, I was astonished at the intensity of the impression produced by hearing the actual voices of those Australian wild men as they danced in rhythm with their songs. To hear is a greater means of revelation than to see. One feels even closer to those Australian natives as their strange words and songs issue from imprisonment in the phonograph, than when one sees them in the film pictures actually beating time with feet and hands and imitating the movements of animals. To receive, as one sits in a London lecture-room, the veritable appeal of these remote and inaccessible things to both the eye and the ear simultaneously, is indeed the most thrilling experience I can remember. With a feeling of awe, almost of terror, we recognize as we gaze at and listen to the records brought home by Professor Baldwin Spencer that we are intruding into a vast and primitive Nature-reserve where even humanity itself is still in the state of childhood—submissive to the great mother, without the desire to destroy her control or the power to substitute man’s handiwork for hers.

Comments: Ray Lankester (1847-1929) was a celebrated British biologist and zoologist. The Anglo-Australian anthropologist Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) studied Australian Aborigines over many years, using film and sound recordings (on wax cylinders) as part of his investigations. The film and sound were separate recordings, not designed to be played back in synchronisation. Those witnessed by Lankester were either made in 1901-02 or (more likely) 1911-12.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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