Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Voices of the First Day

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Voices of the First Day
Author: Robert Lawlor
Date: 1991
Publisher: Inner Traditions
Length: 432 pages
Illustrations: over 1000 photographs, some in color

Voices of the First Day is, not primarily but to a considerable extent, an adult picture book. That’s the best thing about it. Lots of full-color photos of folk art, all of it exotic, much of it beautiful. 
This book also contains lots of pictures of people for whom clothing was optional. Not what could be called exploitative or pornographic pictures. If you’ve ever practiced nudism at home or at summer camp, you’ll recognize the spirit in which these people and their children consented to release these photos. Most of them are wearing something. All of them are doing something other than calling attention to their scantily decorated bodies. The pictures do, however, show fit, youthful bodies.
The majority of the images of people are “duotone” rather than color, which gives everyone a dark reddish brown complexion. Lawlor tells us that the actual complexions of Australian Aboriginal people vary—especially since Australia began counting anyone with one confirmed Aboriginal ancestor as an Aborigine, even if the person can trace sixty-three other ancestors back to different continents. Lawlor goes into detail about the way some of his acquaintances look, and the quirky theories of history, geology, and anthropology his observations have suggested to him...
That’s what’s not to love about the book, actually. Although Voices of the First Day contains some pictures that are worth the price of the book, and some interesting stories—folktales as well as the story of Lawlor’s research—it is primarily an argument that the whole world should emulate some things about some of the cultures of Australian Aborigines. So far as I can tell, the silence of the rest of the world, in response to this idea, has been deafening. For one thing most of us live in climates that force us to wear clothes.
For another thing, the scholarship in this book leaves things to be desired. I’m willing to take Lawlor’s word that an observation like “The moment a man kills a kangaroo, a complex formal system of distribution goes into effect” is a polite summary of what might have been a monotonously detailed, and invasive, account of how his friend A killed a kangaroo and immediately began dividing up the meat among friends B, C, D, and so on. I have no contradictory evidence. But when he starts spinning theories from some mix of personal memory and academic reading, readers may need to be reminded that the books he cites were all madly popular in 1991; the reason why you’ve not read them is that a lot of books like The Gaia Hypothesis and The Hundredth Monkey turned out, when academically checked, not to hold much water. It’s not been proved that there never was a Lost Continent of Mu, or that the magnetic poles of the Earth don’t flipflop every few thousand years, but it has certainly never been proved that there was or that they do.
And sometimes Lawlor’s bias when he soberly states that, because male English colonists took advantage of Aboriginal women, many Anglo-Australians have Aboriginal ancestry and don’t know it. Say whaaat? Different though the English and Aboriginal definitions of family seem to have been, one thing they have in common is that children were normally brought up by their mothers. If people have Aboriginal ancestry and don't know it, the explanation would probably be that Aboriginal men took advantage of English immigrant women.
And Lawlor’s observations of his Aborigine neighbors have been too casual to make up a book on any standard topic. Voices of the First Day is not, for example, a collection of folktales, songs, or poems, although it contains many interesting samples of these. It’s not a language dictionary, although it contains a few fascinating word studies. It’s not a study of Australian wildlife and nature lore, although it contains some tidbits of nature lore, and although many Americans would enjoy reading a collection of Australian nature lore. The closest this book comes to being a real academic study of anything Australian is the folk art—bark and sand paintings that, Lawlor tells us, were always made in shades of brown because the Aborigines used only red, yellow, black, and white pigments.
So what we have is a picture book. But not exactly the kind recommended for sharing with children. The discussion of puberty rites, complete with photos of ritually scarred teenagers, is just the sort of thing many parents would want their kids not to read. This one is recommended to arty types who won’t be bothered by all the near- and complete nudity; who will love all those not quite monochromatic abstract paintings in shades of brown. 

Because it's an art book, Amazon shows this one selling, even when used, for collectors' prices. I'm still willing to sell the copy I physically own now, locally, for the low local-store price, but online the best I could do would be $15 + $5 shipping. Out of this, Lawlor or his favorite charity would get $1.50.