On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.

Editors' note: The 75th anniversary of the death of Walter Benjamin — which fell exactly on September 26th — coincides with a resurgence in interest around the Marxist philosopher and literary critic. This can only be a favorable development. Benjamin's theory of history and his insistence that we understand the dizzying dynamism of modernity stand apart from a calcified and static view of the world that would accept our current chaotic moment as inevitable.

When he committed suicide so that he wouldn't face the horror of being delivered back into the hands of German Nazism, the iconic playwright Bertolt Brecht -- a friend of Benjamin's who had himself only recently escaped to America -- penned this short tribute. It could very well be written about any other of the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees now desperately trying to escape unspeakable horrors of their own. 

* * *

(for Walter Benjamin)

I am told that you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years of exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.

Empires collapse. Gang leaders
are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.

So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.

Bertolt Brecht (1898 - 1956) was a German Marxist poet, playwright and theater director. His work has been translated into dozens of languages and is a major touchstone for radical aesthetic theory.