It is difficult to comprehend humanity’s position within our vibrant ecology, particularly when that environment—traditionally seen as such a stable property, is so clearly susceptible to human influence. Mark Payne, author of Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction (2007) and The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (2010) tracks the reciprocal relationship between myths, narrative patterns, and poetry, and the types of awareness that emerge around ecology. Mark Payne is a Classics Professor, teaching at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. He also runs an incredible poetry series at U of C’s Gray Center during the school year.

Caroline Picard: In your book, The Animal Part: Human and Other Animals in the Poetic Imagination (University of Chicago Press, 2010), you begin with how hunting narratives often center around the human realizing that he—usually a he—is seen by the animal he is about to kill. At the risk of starting out with too grand a beginning, I started wondering if perhaps our awareness of the Anthropocene parallels that hunter’s awareness somehow, where the human suddenly sees itself within a larger, collective, and conscious environment? 

Mark Payne: I see the question of time and how to make sense of ourselves in a dislocated narrative. One kind of dislocated narrative is a conversion narrative where two parts of a life lie on either side of a traumatic break. Are we there yet? Are we nearly there yet? Doubtful I think. 

CP: What do you mean by a dislocated narrative? In what way or why is it dislocated?

MP: I mean it like a dislocated joint. The two parts don’t work together any more. Understanding that we were in the Anthropocene ought to feel something like that I imagine.

CP: This makes me think about a later section of the book about metamorphosis, and maybe especially a part in Ovid where you describe humanity’s confused origin story—whether we were “made by God from his own substance, or whether Prometheus scooped some leftovers from the sky that were mingled with the earth,” making us into the image of a god as one might a dumpling (or at least that’s what came to my mind). “This passage speaks of a kind of homelessness in the world on the part of human beings,” you say, “separated from animals by their later birth and stance, but unsure of their kinship with higher beings. Every transformation in the poem underlines the futility of their efforts to close the gap between themselves and the gods by widening the one between themselves and the animals.” (125) On the one hand, I feel like the predicament you describe here—perhaps especially in the context of animal/human hybridity the chapter lays out (almost as a way of illustrating one’s own alien-ness as it appears in one’s self, spouse, a neighbor, or an encounter with a stranger)—seems exactly the same now as it was then; in other words, this same confusion or homelessness  is just as relevant to ancient Roman society as it is in the Anthropocene. On the other hand, I wonder if we might need different narratives, myths, poems, and fairy tales in framing otherness and contextualizing humanity? 

MP: Why is it that we have this capacity for ecstasis? But then maybe the animals are no more captivated by where they are than we are. Once I spent some time with a Gila monster at an oasis in Arizona. We both seemed equally out of sorts with the desert despite our different adaptations. But we do not trust ourselves when we go along with the other animals, as Heidegger puts it. I think it’s more about trusting what we already have than always needing to innovate. I guess I don’t really trust that impulse of always needing to move on from what’s there already. 

CP: That makes sense, though I sometimes feel like humanity has been in this multi-generational conversation with environment, and its tone has recently changed; it’s less predictable, maybe, noisier. More direct. Maybe instead of thinking about needing some new approach, we need to adapt or evolve? I have a hard time understanding how to take on the violence that’s been enacted on our world thus far, especially when the future seems so dark. What would the ancients say about that? How would/do you approach teaching landscape today?

MP: I think the loss of Nature and the loss of the past are the same thing – a loss of shared life. Hölderlin talks about gleaning – going over the ground again for what we didn’t realize was there. Adaptive mutation is an open question I guess, but I doubt that we can will it into being for ourselves. I feel more hopeful about endurance in being possessed. If we could stay with the remains I think it might have more lasting consequences as a possibility of transformation. That’s how I would teach an ancient landscape, as trying to stay with it, now that it has come all this way to be with us.

CP: In an essay you wrote about trees, you spend some time describing how Christopher Stone’s proposition, whereby trees’ rights would be incorporated into our human legal system. I love the way you describe the awkwardness of that endeavor—how we might then have arbitrate between sometimes conflicting desires of a grove of trees, a paper corporation, a beetle infestation, and it’s local rabbit, robin, human, or bee populations. I feel like you set that exercise up in contrast to the lyric poet who seems better equipped, somehow, to bridge human and nonhuman experience. I was wondering if you could say more about the way poetry specifically assists the imagination? What kind of attention can we find there that we may not find in legal computations of equivalence? 

MP: I feel like the poet’s role, or poetry’s role, anyway is to disequilibriate, that is to say, to throw everything out of balance with disharmonious attachments. I think poetry is really good at that. Disequilibriation might be the beginning of liberation. Stone begins with disproportionate attachment as the beginning of ecological concern but then wants expert panels to make the decisions. I would like it if we could linger some more with the kinds of discomforts that poetry provokes. 

CP: At present, I understand you are working on a new book about shared life, or choral life. I got the sense that you were proposing that shared life illustrates how landscape—something we have traditionally relegated to a silent backdrop—is something that steps forward and participates, perhaps the way a Greek chorus does in a play. I’m wondering how you see that chorality, and what narrative it is attuned to? Would rhythm be an important factor here as well? 

MP: It’s the uncanniness of it that I’m trying to get at. That there’s not just this tree here and this tree there as we typically encounter animals as singularities but that these trees have a shared life together that is also part of our shared life together with them. It’s like the way the chorus comes forward and retreats. I think that’s what you mean by rhythm, except that rhythm to me suggests a kind of regularity whereas the coming into awareness of shared life is more aleatory. It has the structure of attention drift even though it is bringing something to us.