Old CenturySleep, child! 'tis so dark outside, Ah, and such a terrible murmuring and whispering about. If you stir more than even does a stone, Or cry like ill-behaved children, Aged Saturn will devour you. Sleep, little Century, small, small, small!New CenturyAh!Old CenturyMy darling, do you want some pablum?New CenturyNo! I want celebrations, you old geezer. Is it right that I entered without drum and cannons, Without masks, processionals, and triumphant arch, Like a thief in the night?Old CenturyAye, my child, celebrations are unreasonable, And the times are much too wretched. One must not waste money so, And instead make do with poverty.New CenturyYes, poverty indeed! You are quite right! For your kind is poor and pathetic. Do such people have no sense For the benefits of rejoicing and festive joy? Preferring instead to waste away in ponderous seriousness, Never living cheekily like Romans and Greeks? Who had the games and Bacchanalias, Magnificent triumphs and Saturnalias, And all greatness was accompanied by jest, And wit had a different heart, Nor were the gods ever venerated more, Than when they, too, were the object of mockery. When commanders teased soldiers With burlesques after victory, Thus, if I had my way, would one have played us for fools, And brayed a jesting funeral lay for you, And celebrated my birth appropriately, And prophesied future tomfoolery.Old CenturyOh, oh, but that might cause offense! Neighbors would think it a scandal. Instead, that my own fame might linger, I will summon an academic, Who might worthily assess my merits, And present them at length in paragraphs.New CenturyWell, then for more widespread distribution, Choose then the writer for the National Newspaper. He knows about publicity, That is, understands the art Of making something of nothing.Old CenturyAre you such an enemy of light? Did I not destroy superstition? Turn out prejudice? Invent tolerance and Enlightenment, And stir up humanity?New CenturyAh, enough of such empty words! I hear them everywhere. Bragging with cheap truth and virtuous spangles Befits only needy knights. The ancients, though not naming it, Still understood it far, far better.Old CenturyI left nothing unrefined, Everything daintily restricted and reduced. The apostles wore warm cloaks: That is, they behaved quite ordinarily; From which I, after today's fashion, Tailored an airy dress coat. And thus, to my everlasting fame, A new, cleansed Christianity now reigns, According to which Christ was a good man, But otherwise can claim nothing more. And my exegetes turned revelation Into sober reasoning.New CenturyYou certainly have done your job. But what about the heavenly power Of God's seers, and holy fathers, Martyrs and miracle workers? With all your earthly ruminations You hope to win eternal bliss quite as an aside, Believing not in the advent of divine salvation, And calling your impotence "reason."Old CenturyThere has never been any such thing as "inner illumination," That much we know from psychology. How should the Spirit come to us When we do not even sense it? Everything we do is comprehensible, Since we can never acknowledge That Nature performs miracles. Talking about all the "inner-dwelling" spirit and power and life, Is nothing but Jakob Böhmean mysteries; We do it simply with inanimate matter, Mixing it all according to measure and number, Thus do creatures emerge, And can then eat away their lives. Just read my encyclopedists. All of us, going and coming, Regardless of what goes on in and through us, They subject to calculus.New CenturyAnd the result is always zero. Of course, such phantoms might well Be baked well-done of atoms, That inwardly serve nothingness alone, And are too shy to be really here. As un-divine as their deeds are, How, in-deed, should they intimate Nature, Which is but the reflection and image of the deity, Infinitely large and wise and gentle? etc. etc.
After several more, similar exchanges, the New Century leaps from the cradle, to which the Old Century remarks, “Good heavens! how great and strong it becomes! I shudder at the thought.” After attempts to fool the New Century fail, the Old Century then tries a final time:
Daughter, though I am usually not wont to curse: I am your mother, have no doubt; And if such be not the case, then may the devil take me!
Though the Old Century insists it does not even believe in the devil, Satan nonetheless does indeed enter; though the Old Century insists that “such procedure has nothing to do with Enlightenment and humanity,” Satan leads it away. When the New Century asks heaven for guidance, Genius and Freedom appear, clothed in light, offering encouragement and help. The Herald enters again and addresses the dinner guests in conclusion:
And thus did the devil take The old and weak century along with its rubbish. But be not now affrighted and puzzled Should it now lightning and thunder down revolutions, But consider: 'tis the new, strong century. And if you were able to enjoy What I have presented tonight, Then I invite you, ladies and gentlemen, To view the second act, Which may well entertain you even more, A hundred years from now to the day, Either in this time now, Or in eternal glory. For there we will all be ten times more clever, And take such mirth and laughter much, much further. For therein consists blessed life; And so may the good Lord bequeath such to us all!
[*] “Ein schön kurzweilig Fastnachtsspiel vom alten und neuen Jahrhundert. Tragiert am ersten Januarii im Jahr 1801,” Musen-Almanach für das Jahr 1802 274–93 (Sämmtliche Werke 2:149–62), performed at a private souper Caroline and Wilhelm gave in Braunschweig on 1 January 1801. Approximate prose translation. Back.