The Prodigal Son in Boyhood
(From Things That Happen when Reading Rilke)
Every morning I groaned inwardly on waking. Another day of unconditional love. Did I deserve what I hadn’t a chance to earn? Being an exception was a given, and without responsibilities. You were a law unto yourself. I was seized by moral panic. I was the judge and jury in a case where the verdict was decided in advance. Sometimes I couldn’t face breakfast, and went out into the garden to get away from all this unwarranted love, unwelcome as the ‘sweet helps of nature’ they dosed me with, for I was ‘delicate’. If the laws of man didn’t apply to me, maybe the natural law would.
I began to run. Running released me. I had no time to think of anything except my breathing. Greeks like Diogenes called it ataraxia. Emptying the mind of all thoughts in order to achieve the stoical indifference of an old dog. That’s me. Keeping up with myself, I was the incarnation of a light breeze, a weightless moment in the dawning day. So the path of least resistance became a crazy pavement which led to the fields behind the house. I kicked up my heels till I reached the scrublands, and charged around to no obvious purpose. ‘Just like his grandfather, the senator, at his age’, an old farm-hands said to my father. At table the remark was repeated the other way round (‘You were like boy at his age’) to the old man’s delight. But their general rejoicing didn’t bother me. They only knew the half. I was already eavesdropping on The Savants in the tavern, and heard one say, ‘Motto perpetuo. Keep moving. Actions speak, words don’t act.’
The Savants led me to books and Diogenes. He had no time for the Eleatic philosophers who denied the possibility of motion (‘It’s merely repeated movement’). His rebuttal was to step out without a word and walk back and forth. But it’s said he retraced his steps at increasing speed until he was running on the spot. That tired him out, being no sportsman. Thus he took to pirouetting on the ball of his foot, reading aloud from The Book of Job, until his rotations wobbled to a stop. By then the Eleatic had moved on, not realising that Diogenes had given their stasis a new spin. Motion existed, but it didn’t necessarily have to go anywhere. But Diogenes still had their rival, Heraclitus, with his theory of universal flux, to deal with. Given a nudge, he knew, motion could repeat itself forward, like a one-legged man’s hop. However, if the movement is linear, as Heraclitus implies, and therefore never comes round again, you have to ask yourself, Diogenes said, how long is a piece of string?
Diogenes countered Heraclitus’s claim that, ‘You can’t step into the same river twice’, by doing exactly that. The estuary of the Danube as it entered the Black Sea was convenient. The first time it was at low tide and he crossed to the other side without wetting his beard. The second time he had to do the dog’s paddle. Heroclitus remarked as Diogenes lay drying out in the sun, ‘The question is, is it the same river when the river is tidal? The water is salty, more sea than fluvial.’ ‘Indeed’, Diogenes agreed, ‘and a step is different from a swimming stroke. I must learn to walk on water’. Heroclitus didn’t know whether to laugh or weep, and said nothing, and Diogenes, the philosopher who despised all philosophies, resumed his life as an undogmatic dog-man.
In time I realised The Savants were stranded between the universals of philosophy and a sense of their own exceptionalness. The philosophers they borrowed from had been taken away on a receding tide, and they were left with the wrack and found- objects on the shore. The rational of philosophers is personal. They use phrases like the poets composing sonnets, shaping them to sanction an emotional reaction to the universe. I might as well make my own personal philosophy. So I burnt my books and took to being the humming, running boy.
Galloping around was my salvation. It got me nowhere, and that’s where I wanted to be. I merely repeated myself forward and, the mind emptied of conflicting thoughts, resided in a no man’s land where I could be anyone I liked. Cain or Abel, all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a fisherman on the high seas, a hermit in the desert, the whore of Babylon’s waterboy, the brothers Maccabee. Any hero or villain in the histories and biblical romances. And without any obligation to exist, except in the imagination. I would cry ‘Hail’ and ‘Harken’ and ‘Har’ and ‘Havoc’, and nobody would hear me. To break the monotony of winning battles, I hummed myself into becoming a deserter, pillaging my way home, to disgrace the family. Their usual welcome would be more palatable as the neighbours are blackballing them because of me. The authorities intervene and I’m arrested, court-marshalled, and taken out of their custody. The family in turn are dispossessed for complicity and reduced to living in caves.
My favourite was incarnating a shifty Hero, whose doughty deeds could not be ignored. I was loved by the people. But the statues dedicated to my exploits one night were toppled by friends of convenience. Nobody could be trusted except those who hated you. So I threw myself at our designated enemy’s feet, taking their kicks as an honour. At least they’re honest. My comportment amused the enemy, but when indifference set in, I offered myself up as a whipping boy. I was made a fetish of, the butt of their jokes.
The people, observing this, saw me as a traitor, and burnt down the family home, hanged my brother, and banished my aunts to a brothel. They left my saintly father be to suffer… I returned home and, after some torture, persuaded the people that my self-abasement was a Trojan Horse. I informed them of the enemy’s weaknesses, and was fêted as a Master Spy. The remnants of my family hated me, except my father. He had become a wandering penitent who refused alms. I found him in a leper colony, ministering to others more unfortunate than himself. He kissed my hand.
After my imaginary adventures I returned home and behaved like the good boy they thought I was.