It would be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of a man who didn't want to be loved.
As put this way, here - at the tail end of a book so basted in amour de soi that it turns whatever room you read it in into a stuffy Parisian garret - the sentence unwinds hypnotically and strikes you on the forehead. Was it there the whole time? Meaning, have I really been returning every night, after days of dreaming, to a room not empty and peaceful but in fact stalked, like a bathroom sluice by a venomous cobra?
The prodigal fears knowledge because for the same reason we all do: because he knows that it will imply him in the world, which he loves deeply but is also revolted by and terrified of. The story of the prodigal, like the flight of a boomerang, gets its shape exactly from this weird tension, between the hyperactive, self-involved twirlings of the hero, and the larger, slower, but no less circular arc along which these twirlings are gradually returning. For a good example of this, pick that most Oedipal of our century's genre's, the neo-noir. The private eye works his way deeper and deeper into a mystery, until finally he becomes a part of that mystery - and not just any part, either, but the agent: the keyhole through which evil leaks at last into the world. He has tried to do good, but in his puritanical, utterly-cool way he has insisted that the good he does be done on his own terms, meaning professionally, in a way he could escape if he wanted to. Except that you can never escape, no one can, and to build a super-capable persona around the idea that there's somewhere else to go other than the world means, in the end, to become that most beautiful and illustrative of characters, the Fool.
What does this have to do with us? The philosopher Stanley Cavell's kaleidoscopic reading of King Lear, The Avoidance of Love, frames the problem with characteristically care (and commas): "If good is to grow anywhere in this state, it must recognize, and face, its continuity with, its location within, a maze of evil." For Cavell, Lear messes up because he refuses to recognize this - and he refused to recognize this (the world as a "maze of evil") mainly because he does not want to admit that, in this kind of world, we have an obligation to one another - an obligation that we must acknowledge in order to even begin to consider ourselves good people (or maybe just people).
But Malte, like all prodigals, kicks instinctively at obligation. "Not until long afterward would he realize how thoroughly he had decided never to love, in order not to put anyone in the terrible position of being loved." Oh how generous of you, Malte! How utterly selfless, to avoid that most difficult of human works - not because you resent having to take out the trash and brush your teeth twice a day, but because you want to relieve all your potential lovers of "the terrible position of being loved"!
It's easy to laught at Rilke - but I remember reading NMLB for the first time when I was 17 and being floored by this very inversion. Yeah, I thought! (with that peculiar, almost glandular feeling of teenage epiphany, which I remember being somewhere between popping your ears and realizing that you're coming down with a cold) Being loved sucks. It pulls you out of your self-sufficient dream and into a relationship, meaning something contingent and social and imperfect. More importantly, it forces you to "put yourself out there" in a way that Cavell, again, utterly nails in the Lear essay: "We must learn to reveal ourselves, to allow ourselves to be seen. When we do not, when we keep ourselves in the dark."
The dark, the dark. The other night, a friend and I had a few beers and walked around town talking about atonement. Portland at midnight is an interesting place: empty enough to feel strange, but still small enough to feel domestic. Its west end (spotted like a pumpkin patch with empty brick mansions) crests in a promenade that overlooks the city like a tsunami too in love with itself to fall. Inspired, perhaps, by this melancholy vageling, my friend (who has read far too many German books) made the suggestion that his decision to go into healthcare (after years spent doing something completely different) was motivated in some part by a desire to atone. Cue shiver of recognition - but then isn't that how it happens in the story, too? The prodigal sits in a strange bar, salted by indolence, unaware of everything except the person who sits down next to him by chance, and then opens up his mouth to say a truth so startling that our hero understands immediately that someone is watching. The boomerang of meaning returns. As Rilke says somewhere else, forever, "You must change your life".
(image: not sure. If anyone has any idea, please let me know)