I've always been able to throw away the ladder. The trouble is that I was usually still on it at the time

Once, many years ago, Werner Herzog heard that the German film critic Lotte Eisner was gravely ill. By his account, he decided that the best contribution he could make to her state of health would be to go and see her instantly. But that wasn't enough. He would have to walk all the way from the place where he was, which happened to be about a hundred miles from the hospital. So he immediately set off. I don't recall whether Herzog specified his precise route, whether he walked along roads and pavements or whether he actually walked the entire journey as the crow flies, across fields and through forests. By the time Herzog reached the hospital, Eisner had recovered (though she later died anyway).

Is that an authentic pilgrimage or is it a pilgrimage for an age that doesn't really believe in pilgrimages any more? It may well be that a part of what went so badly wrong with Herzog's films was a need to make a huge self-punishing act at their centre in order to gain some sort of spiritual authenticity. The obvious example is Fitzcarraldo, which, as even people who haven't seen it know, involves a huge boat being dragged over a hill in order to get it from one South American jungle river to another. This was based on a true story, but the real Fitzcarraldo had had a very much smaller boat and had dismantled it in order to transport it between rivers.

But that wasn't enough for Herzog. He wanted the weird spectacle of a huge boat moving up a hillside, and indeed the spectacle is amazing, for about two minutes of a 158-minute film.

Really it was Herzog's, rather than Fitzcarraldo's, obsession, and the result is that Les Blank's documentary about the making of the film, Burden of Dreams, is much more interesting than the film itself.

There is a wonderful passage in Leon Wieseltier's new book, Kaddish (Gabriel Josipovici quoted it in his review in the Times Literary Supplement). Wieseltier reacted to the death of his father in what seems at first a Herzog-like gesture. Jewish, though not strictly religious (one thinks of Jonathan Miller's comment: "I'm not a Jew: just Jew-ish"), he decided to go to synagogue three times a day for a year to say the mourner's Kaddish.

His long book is a reflection on what such a ritual means, what it is meant to accomplish, whether it is for the father or the son. In particular what is it to do something over and over again? In Wieseltier's words:

"I see that tradition must be an absorption, a second nature, for creation to occur. That is what traditionalists do not understand. They keep tradition in the forefront of consciousness, so that it becomes not their second nature but their first nature, so that one can think of almost nothing else. But thinking of tradition is not the same as doing something with tradition."

That is a fascinating idea and it doesn't just apply to tradition. Much the same could be said of education and acquiring skills. When, say, you learn French, you are absorbed in all the mechanics and details of the language. You may find this absorbing or tedious, but the important thing, which most people don't manage, is to move on to a point where the language becomes transparent, where you use it intuitively to do things.

Maybe Wittgenstein is saying something similar at the end of the Tractatus: "My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)"

I feel that too much of the story of my life is in those quotations. The way you learn most things is not by being taught or shown them but by doing them over and over again until they become part of your body or brain, until the chisel or violin feels like an extension of your body. I've done a lot of the repetition. It's the transparency I have trouble with.

All those piano lessons. I never quite got to the point where, like Krystian Zimerman, I wake up missing my piano. Seven years of French at school, and I find it difficult to ask a Frenchman the way and virtually impossible to understand what he says back to me, unless the place is straight ahead and he points at it.

Throwing away the ladder. I've always been able to do that. The trouble is that I was generally still on it at the time.

This article first appeared in the 12 July 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Were chimps the first socialists?