‘Der Weltuntergang’ (‘The End of the World’) by Ricarda Huch – Part One


That on the 13th of July, 1599, the world would come to a sudden end, would be destroyed, seemed to be clearly proven by a comet that was to appear on the given day and, as a result of its erratic nature, race blindly amidst the peaceful order of the other celestial bodies, to the extent that I, a professor of mathematics and astronomy, well-versed and experienced in such studies, felt authorised to share the discoveries of both myself and other scholars with Pastor Wolke, my friend, which I did all the more casually as I looked towards the coming events with a composure born of a clear conscience.  Of course, I should have known that this holy man, whom God’s fiery spirit filled and drove around like a will-o’-the-wisp so that he could serve as a warning sign to the people and save them from drowning and rotting in the quagmire of their sins, would be unable to relinquish the opportunity to exploit such an important occurrence, even if there was no way of predicting just what an avalanche of events would be set in motion by the few words I spoke to him in confidence.

A hearty, innocent, upright fellow was Pastor Wolke, and cheerful, too, dubbed Old Misery Guts by the thoughtless youth of the parish purely because he tended to lament, both in his sermons and at other times, the opulence and general Godlessness of his flock, which he took to heart not owing to any resentful bitterness or grumpy demeanour, but rather from a true acceptance of God and sympathy with a world ensnared by the Devil.  While in general those who rouse Epicureans from their sensual pleasures come to be loathed, Wolke, by contrast, enjoyed boundless respect, and his church was not only always full but also patronised by the richest and most distinguished families.  These congregants, among whom Mr. Mümmelke, the Fur King, and the owner of the dyeing works, Schwämmle, known as the Ducat-Man since he enjoyed adorning himself ostentatiously with golden necklaces and medallions, were the most powerful, did not exactly live their lives according to Wolke’s sermons, it is true, but proved their Christian values by listening to them very carefully indeed.

A far less splendid audience was enjoyed by the Pleasure-Seeker who, in direct contrast to Pastor Wolke, urged his listeners to enjoy life, an act he was able to justify, by skilful use of passages from the Bible as well as the testimony of pious people and church elders, as not only Christian but also Godly.  Wolke’s followers regarded these doings with displeasure, while it served to anger the Pleasure-Seeker’s supporters that Wolke’s wife ran a household that was far from harmonising with his principles; for she, a handsome lady from a respected merchant family, was directly responsible for immense opulence and waste, dressing in fur, velvet and silk and seasoning her dishes with all kinds of novelties that were brought by the shipload into our town’s harbour.  Her poor husband, however, was so utterly caught up in his thoughts and his concern for the community that he knew nothing of the affairs of his household, in addition to which, his wife, being crafty and cunning, knew so well how to deceive his unsuspecting disposition, that she indignantly spread stories of the worldly behaviour of others and showed her scorn for all that foolish junk with pompous remarks.

Thus would each have carried on sinning in their own manner if only the end of the world hadn’t splashed like a cannonball into this foul broth.  Yes, now it was clear for the first time just how the old man could preach!  With his Roman nose, he hooked the people to him tightly so that they had no choice but to stop and look at him and suffer his small, fiery eyes swiftly running through them, seeing and noting everything, searching the furthest hidey-hole, pulling it all out and beating it like an old pair of baggy trousers in the presence of the whole community until the dust flew and holes gaped through.  “You come here to pray to God?” he roared.  “Money is your God!  What do you love, what do you value, what do you fight for, what do you work for, what do you protect?  If I set aside your children, whom you idolise, like senseless apes, at the expense of the rest of humanity, there remains nothing but money, money, money.  You think of money, you dream of money, you pray for money.  God put thoughts into your heads as angels of worship, you have turned them into vultures on the hunt for filthy lucre.

“Imagine,” he said, “that there was an island that was swallowed up by the sea each autumn, and that you saw people come and settle it one spring.  They cleared the land of trees, they chopped wood, gathered stones, built houses, argued over who had more and who should be in charge, punched and struck each other until blood flowed, spat in each other’s faces and threw each other into the water.  No doubt you would scream at the top of your lungs: Look at those fools!  The miscreants!  But you are no better nor wiser than they.  Your island, too, will sink beneath the waters, and a ship will carry you to the other shore, yet none of your belongings may you take with you, so as not to overload the ship.  On that day, you can throw your diamonds and pearls out onto the street, not even the rubbish collectors will deign to bend over for them.  And is your character worth the trouble for the ship on its long, dangerous journey?  Who, after all, are you?  What can you do?  Eat pastries and drink sweet wines, such arts do not flourish on that shore.  In the land of spirits, nothing counts but loving, watching, swaying and floating, like the angels.”

His listeners, who up to now had cared little for the skills he mentioned and were completely unversed in them, felt cold sweat running down their foreheads; however, as they emerged from the gloomy, smoky church into the open air and saw the shimmering sea rolling in and out under the vast bright sky, rocking the magnificent ships from side to side, they gathered their courage once more and convinced themselves that the matter wasn’t really that pressing.  By contrast, the poor folk, the workers, the servants, the beggars and vagabonds were completely overcome and roused up by Old Misery Guts’ words, they paraded through the streets in song and scornfully rejected any request to make themselves useful, so that the owners felt unusually constrained in their activities and secretly requested of the pastor that he encourage the people to work, for surely carrying out one’s duties obediently must be pleasing to the eyes of God.

That was a miscalculation on their part.  “Do you believe,” he said, “that God is overly concerned about whether your roast appears punctually on your dining table?  Or whether your living room is washed down on Saturday, or your bonnet is lined appropriately?  It would be far better for you to burn all of this rubbish so that you are rid of having to care about it and can finally think about what really matters.”  Old Misery Guts delivered this sermon on the square in front of the church from a stone pulpit built onto the external wall; for the demand was so large that the crowd would never have fitted into the church itself, and although a shower lashed the faces of the listeners from time to time, as it was a warm, stormy spring day, not a soul moved from the spot, such was the beauty and horror of the pastor’s speech.

The impetus for the great upheaval that now took place was provided by Hans Johannsen, a wholesaler of spices who had inherited his father’s enormous riches but not his adventurous character.  This rather slight little man was downcast and faint-hearted, and hardly dared to enjoy his wealth because he regarded it as an unlawful possession, yet he couldn’t bring himself to share it amongst the needy either, on the one hand because he would have had no idea how to get by without his fortune, on the other since he thought that were he not to keep himself at arm’s distance from the hoi-polloi, people would consider him as part of that crowd and would no longer wish to acknowledge him in high society.

For this reason, he was happy to find an opportunity to rid himself of his loathsome riches in a positive manner, he went up to the pastor and asked him whether he should share his money among the poor or simply, from utter contempt, throw it into the sea; however, they finally agreed upon piling it up on display in the marketplace.  Just as the start of winter sees whole mountains of light-green cabbage heads stacked up in public spaces, the golden Mammon now gleamed in the eyes of the dumbfounded locals, without anyone touching it, either because they were all ashamed to do so in front of others or because money had already become something that had fallen out of favour.

← Introduction     Part Two →

Translation © 2019 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

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