The Pre-Socratics were totally awesome.

I’m currently trying to finish my chapter on Tarkovsky’s film theory and how useful it can be. One very specific issue (Tarkovsky’s use of the elements to create detectable flux and pulsations within the frame) leads me to the work of Heraclitus, one of the Pre-Socratic philosophers.

Tarkovsky, at least as I understand him, was all about flux or change being the dominant force on both our lives and in the universe. This is why his theory is so compatible with the work of Henri Bergson. For both, time passes as a process of continuous change – one alteration is not distinct from another, so any determinations as to beginnings and endings must be arbitrary. How do we decide where one process stops and another begins? There is a fundamental difference between a conception of time as the successive series of states of a system, and as a single continuous process It becomes less a question of arbitrariness, and more one of perspective. One conception sees time as a vast, unfathomable accumulation of states (this was so then etc.), the other as a singularity, a monism – just one thing. That one thing can be either gigantic or tiny, depending on the point from which you are looking at it. It is this way of conceiving of time that links Bergson and Tarkovsky, and now, I find, Heraclitus, who lived about two and a half thousand years before either of them.

Tarkovsky uses water, wind, fire and earth (particularly in the form of mud) a lot. They often serve as a way of visually rendering flux/process/change/pulse/rhythm/vibrations. One of Heraclitus’ main concepts was the idea of ‘Nature’s Bonfire’. He used fire to express the way that he believed the universe worked – a process of constant change. Fire captures both the idea of constant destruction and process, and of the impossibility of distinguishing the ending of one state from the beginning of another. Can you imagine breaking flames down into discrete sections?

“This world neither any god nor man made, but it always was and is and will be, an ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures.” – Heraclitus

His other catchphrase was panta rhei – ‘everything flows’. Nothing is ever at rest, ever in a constant, unchanging state. Everything is rather in constant motion/process/change (even if it appears to be immensely solid and everlasting like a mountain – this again depends on perspective. A mountain would certainly appear immensely solid and permanent to an organism of a height about 5 – 6 feet, with a life span of around 90 years.)

But then, Jonathon Barnes, grumpy english philosophy dude, says that Heraclitus is easily read whatever way you want because his work is so fragmentary and aphoristic. He writes that “Heraclitus attracts exegetes as an empty jampot wasps; and each new wasp discerns traces of his own favourite flavour.” Barnes also explains Heraclitus’ theory of flux as “the furniture of the world is in constant, if imperceptible change.” I like ‘furniture of the world’ – I imagine a nervous God constantly re-arranging his living room.

Heraclitus, on his mobile.

Heraclitus 2
Heraclitus, trying to crack open a walnut.


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