"'What it's like to be an earthquake': Experience, Testimony, and Poetry"
Revisiting the old dispute between history and testimony, the philosopher Avishai Margalit wrote that even the most truthful chronicler, theÂ â€œperfect historical seismograph,â€ who seeks to record the vibrations of history with the utmost accuracy, cannot â€œtell us what it is like to be in an earthquake.â€ For this, says Margalit, â€œweÂ need a moral witness.â€ Â His prime example of a moral witness, however, was a poet -- Anna Akhmatova -- who took on the role of aÂ tormentedÂ mouth/ThroughÂ whichÂ aÂ hundredÂ millionÂ peopleÂ cryÂ and wrote a long poem about what it felt like to be the victim of mass terror and persecution. That poetry somehow gives us privileged access to these experiences has been a longstanding clichÃ© of literary criticism, and yet the discussions of poetryâ€™s ability to give voice to the unspeakable never go beyond a vague, at best metaphorical, understanding of how that happens. If we were to consider the notion of â€œpoetry of witnessâ€ seriously -- as volumes of poetry coming out of the Ukrainian war invite us to do -- then we need to ask ourselves -- why are some poems experienced as testimonies, while others are not, and where do we draw the line, if there is one?
Dunja Dušanić is an associate professor at the Department of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, University of Belgrade, and a Fellow of the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, specializing in witness literature.Â Her books includeÂ Fikcija kao svedoÄanstvo: iskustvo Prvog svetskog rata u prozi srpskih modernistaÂ (Fiction as Testimony: The Experience of World War I in Serbian Modernist Fiction, 2017),Â Sa silama nemerljivim: pesnici kao svedoci modernog teroraÂ (Against Immeasurable Forces: Poets as Witnesses to Modern Terror,Â 2021), andÂ Yugoslav Literature: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested NotionÂ (ed. with Adrijana MarÄetiÄ‡ et al., 2019). She is currently working on a book on public elegy and the politics of mourning.