Moreover, the mysteries could only be solved within a very short period of time, within what is known in managerialese as a window of opportunity. Once I am dead, for example, they will be no longer be soluble even in theory. Which means that there is an infinity of things about the past that, even in principle, can never be known. True enough, no one will ever want to solve all these little mysteries. But the point is that they couldn’t do so even if they wanted to.
In essence, most of our lives consist of such little mysteries, either insoluble or unsolved, and unnoticed because we do not have the time or inclination to notice them. If I were to go to a dermatologist about my discoid eczema, he would tell me, “You have discoid eczema, and you should use this cream twice a day until it goes.” If I were to ask him, “Why have I discoid eczema?” he would say, “Because you have a genetic predisposition to it”; and if I were to ask how he knows that I have a genetic predisposition to it, he would say, “Because you have discoid eczema.” If I were to say that disposition is not fatality, he would grow impatient (thinking of the next patient) and regard me as one of those irritating children who go one asking why until the question is reached—actually, not very many whys from the first—why there is something rather than nothing. And one of the reasons we find such children irritating is that they soon go far beyond our capacity to answer them. In explaining why examinations are to be feared even by students who are the best prepared, Charles Caleb Colton wrote that the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can know.
Many times in the past couple of centuries we have been offered the chimera of complete self-understanding: Marxism, Freudianism, Darwinism. The latest offer is neuroscience. This time it is for real, they tell us. Those Marxists, Freudian, and Darwinians were simpleminded; this time, finally, all will be made clear.
Except, of course, why I have four patches of discoid eczema on the instep of my right foot, that sometimes itches and sometimes doesn’t, a third of a century after I first had it.
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