I walked alone and helplessly and saw that everything around me was becoming dark and shapeless. So I began searching and running to find what had happened to all the light. All at once I saw a new building with glistening windows and a light as bright as day shining above the doors, and I went through a gate and entered a brightly lit hall. Many people had gathered there and sat quietly, full of attention, for they had come to be consoled and enlightened by the priests of science.
In front of the people on a raised platform stood a priest of science, a somber man dressed in black with intelligent, tired eyes, and he spoke with a clear, mild, and convincing voice to the numerous people in the audience. There were bright charts in front of him with many pictures of gods. He stepped up to the god of war and told the listeners how this god originated long ago in the olden days, out of the needs and wishes of the people of that time, who had not yet recognized the unity of all the world’s forces. No, they had always seen just the single and momentary thing, those primitive people, and so they needed and created for each thing a special god — a god for the sea and the land, for hunting and war, for rain and sun. And thus the god of war was called into being. The lecturer who served wisdom told the audience politely and clearly where this god’s first statues had been erected and when the first sacrifices had been made to him, until this god had later become superfluous due to the triumph of knowledge.
As he moved his hand to extinguish the light shining on this chart, the god of war faded and was gone. In its place appeared a picture of the god of sleep. This picture was explained much too quickly, for I would have liked to hear much more about this noble god. Soon after his picture faded away, others appeared — the god of drink and the god of joyful love and the goddesses of farming, hunting, and home. Each one of these divinities radiated their unique form and beauty as a greeting and reflection from the remote early stage of civilization. They were all explained, with reasons given for why they had long since become superfluous. One image after the next was extinguished by the lecturer and then vanished, and each time a small refined triumph of the mind registered in us, along with mild sympathy and regret in our hearts.
But some people laughed throughout and clapped their hands and shouted, “Get them away!” even before the words of the learned man came to an end and the pictures were extinguished.
As we listened attentively, we learned that not even birth and death needed special symbols any longer, nor did love, envy, hate, or anger, for humankind had recently tired of all these gods and realized that individual forces and qualities did not exist in the souls of human beings or in the depths of the earth and sea. Rather, there was only a primordial force, and the next great task of the human mind was to explore this essence.
Meanwhile, the hall had become dimmer and darker, and I was not certain whether it was due to the extinguishing of the pictures or to other reasons unknown to me. Whatever the cause was, I realized that the pure and eternal source of all things would not be illuminated in this temple, and I decided to flee this house in search of brighter places.
But before I was able to act on my decision, I saw the twilight in the hall become even more dismal, and the people grew restless and began to shout and push by each other as sheep do when a storm suddenly erupts and scares them. Nobody desired to listen to the words of the wise man anymore. The crowd was overcome by a terrible fear and became frantic. I heard sighs and cries and saw people forcing their way to the gates. The air became full of dust and as thick as brimstone. It was completely gloomy, but behind the high windows one could see a turbulent glow and a dim red flicker as in a fire.
I lost consciousness. I lay on the ground. Numerous people fled and stepped on me.
When I woke up and straightened myself out with my bloodied hands, I was completely alone in an empty and destroyed building, whose walls were falling and splitting apart and threatening to collapse on me. In the distance I heard noise and thunder and random sounds roaring faintly. The air that beamed through the broken walls vibrated from fires as if from a painful bleeding visage. But the suffocating gloom had vanished.
As I crawled out of the ruined temple of knowledge, I saw half the city standing in flames and the dark sky fluttering through fiery columns and trails of smoke. Dead people lay here and there in the rubble of the buildings. It was quiet all around me, although I could detect the crackling and the whispering of the distant sea of flames. And beyond it I heard a wild and dreadful howling that came from very far away, as if all the people of the earth had raised their voices in an endless cry or sob.
The world was sinking, and I was hardly surprised. It was as if I had been waiting for this a long time.
Now I saw a boy coming out of the middle of the flames and the collapsing city. He had his hands in his pockets and skipped and danced from one foot to the next. He seemed resilient and full of life. Suddenly he stood still and whistled in a particular way. It was our friendship whistle from my high school days, and the boy was my friend Gustav, who later shot himself as a university student. All of a sudden, I was like him and once again a boy of twelve, and the burning city and distant thunder and roaring and howling storm from all the corners of the world sounded wonderfully delightful to our alert ears. Oh, now everything was good, and the dark nightmare in which I had been living for so many desperate years went away and sank out of sight.
With a laugh, Gustav pointed to a castle and a high tower that had just collapsed against each other. May that junk collapse! It was no real loss. One could build new and more beautiful things. Thank God that Gustav was there again! Now life had meaning once more.
Just then, an enormous figure freed itself from a gigantic cloud that had arisen over the collapse of the majestic building. Full of expectation, we both stared at it in silence. Slowly the head of a god, along with gigantic arms, stretched itself up into the air, and the figure stepped triumphantly into the smoke-filled world. It was the god of war, exactly as I had seen him depicted in the temple of knowledge. But he was alive and enormously large, and his flaming, illuminated face smiled proudly, like a boy who was in good spirits. Right away, without saying a word, we agreed to follow him, and we pursued him as if we were on wings, flying rapidly and tempestuously above the burning city in the wide fluttering stormy night as our hearts pounded in excitement.
The god of war stopped on the peak of the mountain. He was jubilant and shook his round shield — and behold, in the distance large holy figures raised themselves from all edges of the circle of the earth and came toward him. They were tremendous and glorious, those gods and goddesses, demons and demigods. The god of love came floating, and the god of sleep came tumbling, and the goddess of hunting was slender and severe. They kept coming, with no end in sight. And since I was blinded by their noble figures, I lowered my eyes, and soon I realized that I was no longer alone with my dear friend. All around us stood a new kind of people, and together we bowed on our knees before the gods who were returning home.