Join us on Thursday, March 23, at 1:00 pm in the Bryan Hall Faculty Lounge. Dunja Dušanić, associate professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Belgrade and a current Fulbright Scholar in the UVA English Department, will give a talk entitled "'What it's like to be an earthquake': Experience, Testimony, and Poetry."
Professor Dušanić introduces the presentation as follows:
Revisiting the old dispute between history and testimony, the philosopher Avishai Margalit wrote that even the most truthful chronicler, the “perfect historical seismograph,” who seeks to record the vibrations of history with the utmost accuracy, cannot “tell us what it is like to be in an earthquake.” For this, says Margalit, “we need a moral witness.” His prime example of a moral witness, however, was a poet -- Anna Akhmatova -- who took on the role of a tormented mouth/Through which a hundred million people cry 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 cliché of literary criticism, and yet the discussions of poetry’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 “poetry of witness” 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. Her books include Fikcija kao svedočanstvo: iskustvo Prvog svetskog rata u prozi srpskih modernista (Fiction as Testimony: The Experience of World War I in Serbian Modernist Fiction, 2017), Sa silama nemerljivim: pesnici kao svedoci modernog terora (Against Immeasurable Forces: Poets as Witnesses to Modern Terror, 2021), and Yugoslav Literature: The Past, Present and Future of a Contested Notion (ed. with Adrijana Marčetić et al., 2019). She is currently working on a book on public elegy and the politics of mourning.