This second portion of AJ Naddaff’s conversation with James Montgomery about Fate the Hunter further delves into the anthology and its portrayal of time and the lines between human and non-human. Montgomery also shares his thoughts on ecocriticism and using contemporary theories in reading poetry of the past.
AJN: Carrying on from our prior discussion of fate, can you talk about the phenomenon of time in this collection?
JM: In Fate the Hunter, when the poet or the human animal does the hunting, they become the machine of fate. They inflict death on non-humans so as to reach a moment in which time stands still. The hunter enjoys a moment of near immortality that takes them out of the normal frame of existence.I think that in the hunting poem, generally when it emerges as a fully fledged genre, you get the sense of the poem trying to recreate the moment of the hunt and also trying to convey some of this notion that time is almost imploded.
AJN: As if trying to conquer time in some way.
JM: Yes, for however short a period—while knowing that our fate is just around the corner, that the angel of death is not far away, that God has already predetermined how it’s all going to fall. But at the same, what I love about it is that it’s still an imperative to try to experience that little moment in time where everything is frozen.
AJN: How does this poetry blur the lines between the human and non-human?
JM: This poetry displays a small taste of what it means to be both a human animal and beyond a human animal. It’s an experience that is kind of similar to what elite endurance athletes describe when they talk about, you know, running fifty miles a day. They go into this different mode of consciousness. It’s as if you’ve peeled back the curtains of reality to experience something bigger than and beyond yourself.
AJN: That was a great analogy.
JM: It is the sense that I get. I mean, I’m not a hunter myself and I’ve never been on a hunting expedition, so I may be making all this up. I guess it is the point at which you experience something so unique and so out of the ordinary that it’s probably, I imagine, quite addictive, so far out of the realm of normal experience. And it’s not dissimilar to the aesthetic experience I think that we were discussing in the first part of this conversation.
AJN: What do you think about using contemporary theories today to read pre-modern Arabic poetry?
JM: It depends on how it’s done.
AJ: Right . . . because we can risk being anachronistic.
JM: I wouldn’t—because I’m not that kind of thinker—go back and interpret the whole poetry collection somehow in a way that makes it environmentally sound before environmentalism. I wouldn’t cast the history of the past in light of the obsessions of the present. The way I look at contemporary theories is that if they can refocus my mind in such a way that I look back at the past and see what is familiar to me in a new light—because it was something that I had taken for granted or wasn’t fully appreciative of—then that is great.
AJ: You read a lot of ecocriticism for this project, right?
JM: Yes, but I was interested in this corpus long before the rise of ecocriticism. Not all ecocriticism helps because it’s framed in very, very contemporary terms. But some of it does. I recall a famous book by Jonathan Bate called The Song of the Earth (2000) where he takes John Keats’ poem “Ode to Autumn” and does a bit of historical meteorological research and manages to show through newspaper reports that the eruption of a volcano in Indonesia released such a dust cloud that it hung in the air for three years and caused a famine in the UK because of its affects on the wheat crops. It took three years for the dust cloud properly to lift, and he takes Keats’s Ode to Autumn, which I studied at school, and asks, ‘in light of this, what was the weather like outside? Why was it being celebrated? Why does the poem start with “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness?”’ His response is that it’s kind of love song to the seasons because nature is back.
AJ: That’s a great example of how theory can let us recover aspects of the past that may have been forgotten or neglected.
JM: Yes, this is when it works at its best.
AJ: What is most interesting to you in ecocriticism at the moment?
JM: The notion of attentiveness, the attentiveness of human animals to the non-human. It’s closely associated with the theories of David Abram. He has a book called The Spell of the Sensuous (1996). The whole thing there is that by forgetting to be attentive to the environment, the world around us, we have brought on the changes in the climate. More importantly, it raises the issue of non-human animal consciousness.
AJ: How does that relate to the corpus of early Arabic hunting poems?
JM: What I find in some of these poems is the moment of timelessness we were talking about earlier in the hunting encounter. In this moment, the hunter has the sense of becoming part both of the hunting team (say the falcon or hawk) and also part of the quarry. He alludes to the moment of being killed, which seems to be a prime example of an attempt to enter into non-human animal consciousness. And I wouldn’t have thought of that if I hadn’t been reading ecocriticism.
James Montgomery is Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall. His latest publications are Fate the Hunter: Early Arabic Hunting Poems, and Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, with Michael Fishbein.
AJ Naddaff is a writer and Ph.D. student in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.