From Friedrich von Schiller’s unfinished The Man Who Sees Ghosts (Der Geisterseher):
“Oh, stop that cloud picture dissolving for me and I will fling my burning arms about it. What joy can come from giving my blessing to visions which, like me, will be gone tomorrow?—Is not everything around me transient? Everything is thrusting forward, pushing its neighbour out of the way in order hastily to drink a drop from the well of life and then move on still parched. At this very moment now when I rejoice in my strength there is already a life somewhere in the making whose task it is to destroy me. Show me something that endures and I will be virtuous.”
“What has driven out those wholesome desires that were once the pleasure and guiding principles of your life—to sow seeds for the future, to serve a higher, eternal order—?”
“The future! Eternal order! If you take away what man has drawn out of his own feelings, imputing purpose to his imagined god and laws to nature, what do we then have left?—I see what has preceded me and what will follow me as two black and impenetrable curtains hanging down at either end of the limits of human life, and which no mortal has ever drawn back. Generations upon generations have stood before them with flaming torches trying to guess what might perhaps be behind them. Many see their own shadows, the shapes of their own passions enlarged and moving over the curtain of the future, and these start back in fear at this picture of themselves. Poets, philosophers and great statesmen have painted them with their dreams, joyful or dark, according to whether the sky above them was grimmer or brighter; and from far away the perspective was misleading. Many a charlatan, too, has battened on this universal curiosity and, by means of strange masquerades, set people’s eager fantasies alight with amazement. A deep silence reigns behind this curtain; no-one, once they are behind it, calls out in answer; all that was ever heard was a hollow echo of the question, as if one had cried out in a vault. Everyone must pass behind this curtain and they clutch at it in fear, uncertain as to who might be standing behind it and who will be there to receive them; quid sit id, quod tantum perituri vident. Among these, for sure, have been unbelievers, too, who maintained that this curtain made fools of men merely and that nothing had been seen because, behind it, nothing in fact was there; but in order to convince them, others sent them swiftly through.”
“Having no better reason than that they could see nothing was always a hasty conclusion to come to.”
“And now, my friend, you see, I have happily resigned myself to not wishing to look behind this curtain, and the wisest action will be to wean me from all curiosity. But as I draw this circle about me that I cannot step out of and enclose my whole existence in the confines of the present, so this little spot that I was in danger of neglecting through vain thoughts of mastery becomes all the more important to me. What you call the purpose of my existence is now no longer of any concern to me. I cannot escape it, I cannot further it, but I know and firmly believe that I must and do fulfill such a purpose. I am like a messenger carrying a sealed letter to its appointed place. What the letter contains does not matter to him—he has only to earn his fee for its delivery.”
The Latin is from Tacitus’ Germania ch.40, on the Langobardi (Lombards). There’s a slightly different reading in modern editions – quid sit illud instead of quid sit id – but I’m not sure whether the quoted version is due to Schiller’s text or his memory.
There is nothing noteworthy about these peoples individually, but they are distinguished by a common worship of Nerthus, or mother Earth. They believe that she interests herself in human affairs and rides among their peoples. In an island of the Ocean stands a sacred grove, and in the grove a consecrated cart, draped with a cloth, which none but the priest may touch. The priest perceives the presence of the goddess in this holy of holies and attends her, in deepest reverence, as her cart is drawn by heifers. Then follow days of rejoicing and merry-making in every place that she deigns to visit and be entertained. No one goes to war, no one takes up arms; every object of iron is locked away; then, and only then, are peace and quiet known and loved, until the priest again restores the goddess to her temple, when she has had her fill of human company. After that, the cart, the cloth and, if you care to believe it, the goddess herself are washed clean in a secluded lake. This service is performed by slaves who are immediately afterwards drowned in the lake. Thus mystery begets terror and a pious reluctance to ask what that sight can be that only those doomed to die may see.