“In recent years the feeling that the world was small and that I grasped everything in it had grown stronger and stronger in me, and that despite my common sense telling me that actually the reverse was true: the world was boundless and unfathomable, the number of events infinite, the present time an open door that flapped in the wind of history. But that is not how it felt. It felt as if the world were known, fully explored and charted, that it could no longer move in unpredicted directions, that nothing new or surprising could happen. I understood myself, I understood my surroundings, I understood society around me, and if any phenomenon should appear mysterious I knew how to deal with it.
Understanding must not be confused with knowledge for I knew next to nothing — but should there be, for example, skirmishes in the borderlands of an ex-Soviet republic somewhere in Asia, whose towns I had never heard of, with inhabitants alien in everything from dress and language to everyday life and religion, it turned out that this conflict had deep historical roots that went back to events that took place a thousand years ago, my total ignorance and lack of knowledge would not prevent me from understanding what happened, for the mind has the capacity to deal with the most alien of thoughts. This applied to everything. If I saw an insect I hadn’t come across, I know that someone must have seen it before and categorized it. If I saw a shinty object in the sky I knew that it was either a rare meteorological phenomenon or a place of some kind, perhaps a weather balloon, and if it was important it would be in the newspaper the following day. If I had forgotten something that happened in my childhood it was probably due to repression; if I became really furious about something it was probably due to projection, and the fact that I always tried to please people had something to do with my father and my relationship with him. There is no one who does not understand their own world. Someone who understands very little, a child, for example, simply moves in a more restricted world than someone who understands a lot. However, an insight into the limits of understanding has always been part of understanding a lot: the recognition that the world outside, all those things we don’t understand, not only exists but is also always greater than the world inside. From time to time I thought that what had happened, at least to me, was that the children’s world, where everything was known, and where with regard to the things that were not known, you leaned on others, those who had knowledge and ability, that this children’s world had never actually ceased to exist, it had just expanded over all these years. When I, as a nineteen-year-old, was confronted with the contention that the world is linguistically structured I rejected it with what I called sound common sense, for it was obviously meaningless, the pen I held, was that supposed to be language? The window gleaming in the sun? The yard beneath me with students crossing it dressed in their autumn clothes? The lecturer’s ears, his hands? The faint smell of earth and leaves on the clothes of the woman who had just come in the door and was now sitting next to me? The sound of pneumatic drills used by the road workers who had set up their tent on the other side of St. Johannes’ Church, the regular drone of the transformer? The rumble from the town below — was that supposed to be a linguistic rumble? My cough, is it a linguistic cough? No, that was a ridiculous idea. The world was the world, which I touched and leaned on, breathed and spat in, ate and drank, bled, and vomited. It was only many years later that I began to view this differently. In a book I read about art and anatomy Nietzsche was quoted as saying that “physics too is an interpretation of the world and an arrangement of the world, and not an explanation of the world,” and that “we have measured the value of the world with categories that refer to a purely fabricated world.”
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