Heraclitus’s Railway Adventure
- an irreverent comedy -


a short
play or interlude
in which are expounded
some ideas of pre-Socratic
philosophy in relation to
the problem of

© Martin Dace, London 2002

Dramatis personae:
Heraclitus, a philosopher who says you can never step into the same river twice;
Parmenides, a philosopher who says that everything is always the same and that change is impossible;
Ariadne, an immortal.

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to Act 1, scene 2
to Act 1, scene 3
to Act 2
to Act 3

Act 1, Scene 1
Paddington Station

Heraclitus: Parmenides! It's true, you do look awesome, just as Socrates said after he met you - or after he will meet you at some time in the future.

Parmenides: Well, Heraclitus you old rascal, it's my job to say that nothing changes. So in a sense that meeting with Socrates already exists, even though I don't know about it yet. But that doesn't give you an excuse to indulge in wild anachronisms. Anyway, what are you doing here at Paddington Station?

H: See, I have a one way ticket to Swansea!

P: Why a one way ticket to Swansea?

H: Well, it's some new rule. The railway company is so bad at giving out correct ticket pricing information, what with all the Awaydays, Family Railcards, Apex Advance Booking Stopover Returns, Bring a Dog and Your Bicycle Travels Free, and Student Pensioner Special Fares (only available on trains passing through Watford on the fifth Tuesday in February), that they've decided to simplify the system. One way tickets only. And you're not allowed to return to the station where you purchased your ticket. The railway company finds this cuts down on the number of complaints.

P: No, I mean, why Swansea?

H: Because swans are the most beautiful of birds. They are owned by the British Crown and so they don't get eaten, thus they are symbolic of the only part of the soul that is immortal, the psyche. Also, don't forget that Zeus came to Leda in the form of a swan. (Did you know by the way that swans, unlike other birds, actually do have penises? I read that on the internet.) And before you ask, the sea, EH THALASSA, is in the blood of all Greeks. Thus, Swansea represents the immortal soul swimming in the sea of time, immutable beauty in the midst of that which incessantly changes.

P: You do realise that Swansea is in south Wales?

H: Oh.

P: I'm going to Birmingham myself. The second city of the Hyperboreans! The Athens of the Midlands, they tell me!

H: Well, since everything changes, I expect I'll end up somewhere entirely different from Swansea anyway. I'd like to come along with you, share your adventure, and perhaps persuade you that everything is in constant movement, which should be easy on the railway.

P: Be my guest. But you're wrong about the railway. Look, right here where we're standing is a map of the line. You can see that once you're on the train you'll end up in Swansea eventually.

H: Yes, everything moves and changes. Soon these iron pillars and the glass roof will be no more, and the landscape will blur and transform itself.

P: Indeed, but it will only appear to do so as you rush past. And at the end of the line you will arrive at Swansea, which has always been there, and always will be there. Swansea exists now, although you cannot see it, like a myth, ever the same.

H: Just as in mythological time Zeus and Leda are always... You have a point there.

P: We'll have to separate at Reading General where I change for Birmingham. Once the ticket is printed, nothing can be done to alter it.

H: The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on, nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line... as someone will once say.

P: I see you're coming round to my point of view a little, at least as far as the past is concerned?

H: The moving finger is always writing a new line...

P: It was always going to be the case that the 12.03 would leave at 12.03, so we'd better get on board!

H: You obviously haven't used the railway much recently. Well, this seems comfortable enough! I wonder if we'll travel fast enough to observe any Einsteinian relativistic phenomena?

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to Act 1, scene 2
to Act 1, scene 3
to Act 2
to Act 3

Act 1, Scene 2
(The railway carriage, some time later...)

P: So you see, the appearance of Twyford station now rushing past us is merely a subjective effect of the fact that our consciousness is somehow connected to this railway carriage. In reality Twyford always exists.

H: Hmm... now Twyford exists, but according to my memory we passed Slough a while back, and Slough existed then. Of course I can still remember passing through Slough, but somehow the memory is less immediate, less real. If it were just as real, perhaps I wouldn't know whether we were now at Slough or Twyford?

P: Well, you would say you are conscious now, of Twyford passing by, but would you not say you were also conscious then, when Slough passed by? And if we were to mark on the railway line in felt pen all the moments you were conscious, wouldn't we be able to show an almost continuous felt pen line from Paddington to Twyford? Possibly even all the way to Swansea?

H: So if we call any moment I am conscious, 'now', are you saying that 'now' includes the whole felt pen line from Paddington to Swansea? That does rather seem to drain the meaning out of the word 'now,' doesn't it?

P: Yes, it's all caused by an illusion. I explained the whole thing in my second book, 'The Way of Illusion', only fragments of which are now extant. I discovered a truly remarkable proof, only unfortunately this railway compartment is too small to contain it.

H: At any rate, it does seem that our fate is in some way constrained. For example, I could not get out at Twyford to have a look around even if I wanted to.

to Act 1, scene 1
to Act 1, scene 2
to Act 1, scene 3
to Act 2
to Act 3

Act 1, Scene 3
(Later, on Reading station...)

P: So you're saying you don't think Birmingham will be much cop?

H: Well they have Jasper Carrot I suppose...

P: I've been thinking. It's true that we couldn't have got off at Twyford, and I can't go to Swansea on this ticket, but what if we got on the slow train and got off at Streatley? They wouldn't have a ticket inspector except for the commuters, I shouldn't wonder.

H: Yes. Reading is one of those places that belongs to KAIROS as well as CHRONOS. We can change trains here, go together to Streatley, and do a pub crawl.

P: And then we can go to the cheese shop, look around, think of the name of a cheese that they won't have, and then ask for it!

H: You mean, like Norwegian blue? Ahahaha!

P: Well, at any rate your sense of humour hasn't changed. Are we always the same, like Twyford and Swansea? Or does our ability to make use of KAIROS places (like Reading Station) mean that we too can change?

H: I expect Plato will have something to say about that (but he's just a kid now).

to Act 1, scene 1
to Act 1, scene 2
to Act 1, scene 3
to Act 2
to Act 3

Act 2
A hill in Streatley

Heraclitus: To illustrate my point, I shall write a little note on this piece of cheese wrapper, and push this twig through it so... and so. There: it's just like those little labels gardeners used to make to show where they had planted the beans...

Parmenides: Apropos of which, they say Pythagoras never ate beans. Some people think it is because the soul can migrate into a bean at some stage, others because beans look like testicles, and others still because beans give one wind. Personally, I think he used beans to demonstrate the geometrical properties of numbers, and by the time he was finished they were too grubby to cook with.

H: Well, at any rate numbers do not change, I think we're agreed on that, and you can't cook with numbers. But everything down here changes all the time. That's what I'm saying. Anyway, I plant the little note in the ground, like this...

P: What's it say? Oh, you've written "here and now".

H: Exactly.

P: So?

H: Well, since we are, like peripatetic philosophers, walking around (in the present case up this hill so that we can picnic where we can see view of the river), in the next moment we see my little note a few paces off, and you can no longer read the writing. Here, I'll do another one.

P: What have you written this time?

H: The same. Only this time it is true, because it really is here and now, whereas the one I did before was there and then...

P: Although if you could read it from here it would probably still say 'here and now'...

H: ...and another one just here... and here...

(P. looks around in wordless awe at the scene coming into view below them)

H: ...and here...

P: Here's a good spot. Lucky I brought my green himation: we'll sit on that.

H: See?

P: What?

H: Well, markers for a selection of the different moments involved in getting up here. You can see they're all in different places. Panda rhei - everything flows - like the river over there.

P: If we were actually to go back and look at one again it would still say 'here and now', and it would still be true. On the contrary, it demonstrates that nothing changes at all. The only thing that changes is our point of view, and that only because of an illusion, as I told you before...

H: You said you had a proof?

P: Yes, although as I said, the proof is no longer extant. The essence of it is that our true vision would show, as Mr Blake will say, 'everything as it is, infinite'. I saw this once, on my way home from an unusually good party, when the goddess Dike showed me reality in the blink of an eye, which for me had no time.

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to Act 1, scene 2
to Act 1, scene 3
to Act 2
to Act 3

Act 3
(The same)

Heraclitus: This banana, for instance: does it not travel through time in the same way that we do? See: now it is an unpeeled banana, and now ... it is half peeled ... and now ... ... haha! I've eaten it, and throw the skin into the nettles, thus.

Parmenides (stares at Heraclitus's hand where a moment before the banana had been, puts an index finger to each temple, and wobbles slightly as if in a trance): I seem to see ... a banana extended in time, like a wavy yellow pole with a crescent shaped cross section ... half way up the pole expands as if into a flower ... but the flower is only the cross section of a now elaborate stem ... the flowerlike stem gets wider and more irregular but its central part gets smaller until, at the top, the stem disappears and the flower extends itself to one side suddenly, like a thin branch with crazy spiralling protrusions. Then the end of the branch disappears into a green tangle of insane complexity. It's ... oh, I've lost it. It's like one of those magic pictures. You lose the 3D if you move your head.

H: Ha! The banana in time. I suppose the green tangle is the nettles over there?

P: I think I lost my grip then. Even a clump of nettles can overwhelm the unprepared mind.

H: Perhaps you shouldn't drink retsina after Theakstons Old Peculiar?

P: Anyway, the point is, from the point of view of objective science, isn't a banana just how I've described it? At any rate, the small part of its history when you are eating it?

H: No doubt. And that being the case, we are like that too: spiralling wavy pink things with himations wrapping and unwrapping around us as we perform our dance of fate.... Isn't it strange how even when one is trying to describe a solid, like a sculpture, one finds oneself using the continuous present tense? One describes a solid thing in a sequence, as though one were looking first at this part, then at another.

P: The continuous present... spiralling... using... looking.... But let's not get too mystical.

H: Perhaps at any rate we are approaching a solution to the problem of change, that is, how can change occur?

P: As I've always argued, change is impossible.

H: Explain?

P: Let us take object A. If it does not change, it remains object A, which is not problematical. But if it changes, it must perforce no longer be object A, but another object, which we might call B. Now clearly B is not A, because otherwise it would be A, which contradicts our hypothesis. Therefore if A changes, it follows that A ceases to exist. Therefore change is impossible.

H: That's exactly what the barman said when I paid for our drinks in the Dog and Duck with a silver tetradrachm.

P: Yes. It's heartening to think that these obviously coarse people have philosophical souls.

H: Let us see if we can reach agreement on the problem of change.

P: Go ahead!

H: Take a banana (object A) to be, not the thing that was a banana and is now already partly a part (object B1) of the body of Heraclitus, and partly the beginning of a small compost heap (object B2), but the four dimensional yellow sculpture of your vision. Then indeed we can admit that a banana is unchanging. But what we call the banana is not object A nor objects B1 and B2, but the banana is the whole yellow wavy sculpture. The Time Banana. And we can agree that it is, from the point of view of your vision, unchanging. What we called object A (the banana before you ate it) is any cross section of the sculpture lower down in its main stem, and what we called objects B1 and B2 are other cross sections somewhere near the top.

P: I like it!

H: So change is a way of describing different parts of the same object, but the object is to be thought of as four dimensional. In other words, a thing is its whole self, including its entire fate in time.

P: Yes, it seems that way. But it follows then, that we never normally see a whole banana...

H: ...except after a suitable quantity of Theakstons Old Peculiar followed by the very best Retsina!

P: Hmmm... perhaps this is off topic, or we may return to it another time, but it seems to me that the Time Banana may not be the same thing as what Plato will call, when he develops his theory of Forms, the Ideal Banana.

H: How so?

P: Because the Ideal Banana is the essence of banana in the mind of god, whereas the Time Banana is all the manifestations of the banana extended in time, which is more like the definition of the essence of banana that will be given by the godless existentialists in the 20th century. 'Existence precedes essence' and all that.

H: Perhaps if we take all the four dimensional bananas that ever have been and ever will be, a sort of Grand Unified Time Banana, that would be the Ideal Banana?

P: Maybe, but even so wouldn't the Grand Unified Time Banana be subject to chance events (albeit those chance events are foreordained)? Then the Grand Unified Time Banana would not be the Ideal banana.

H: Let us return to the matter in hand. We are tentatively agreed that... Oh look, there's someone... It's a woman, rather a fine looking one from this distance... Not a local: she's wearing a peplos!

P: Oh yes, I see now! She's coming this way, waving her hands as though she's scattering something... no... it's a thread. She has a ball of twine in one hand and she's unwinding it in a trail behind her. And she has a chaplet of roses on her head: how charming! And a rustic shoulder bag with something in it.

H: See where she's laying the thread - very carefully right alongside my cheesewrapper 'here and now' markers. She has the bound up hairstyle of a married woman. What a lovely neck! Such an irony that one can only see women's necks when they're already promised to someone else!

(They stand up, dusting crumbs off themselves)

P and H (in unison): Chairete, revered lady.

Ariadne: Chairete, ygieia sas!

H: Are you a nymph or goddess of these hills and woods? For otherwise, is it not strange that you should be seen out alone?

P (pushing in front of H and looking back at him): What a thing to say! (to Ariadne) Please forgive him for such a question! We can see that you are a respectable married woman. My friend here lives in constant awe of the shifting changes in everything, and sometimes it makes him forget ordinary etiquette.

Ariadne (laughing): Thank you for your consideration! But really, your friend is right: life is too short to spend much of it in mechanical pleasantries.

(H emerges from behind P)

Ariadne (points behind her): See where my thread stretches out down the hill: it is a little symbol of the shortness of my life. It begins where the youngest of the three Fates, Clotho, began to spin my story, and it stretches out as her older sister Lachesis makes me unwind it.

H: This most recent bit of your thread is right next to my little markers, that say 'here and now'.

A: Yes, the threads of our lives touch briefly, and all your little markers were true for me, too, as I passed each one.

H: So... you are a mortal?

A: I was mortal. You see, my thread had a beginning.

P: Was mortal? Who are you?

A: This is my ball of twine, with which my husband Theseus escaped from the labyrinth. But he forgot me on Naxos. Hero though he was, you might say he lost the thread.

H (aside to P): By the gods! It's Ariadne from the time of legends! (addressing Ariadne) So you are Ariadne? Didn't you marry a god afterwards? Did not the god also abandon you, and did you not hang yourself?

P: Heraclitus, have some respect! Do you not see you are addressing a goddess?

A: You are right, Parmenides. The hanging is but a dim memory of the way they used to hang me in a tree in effigy, so that I might survey the crops and see that all is fruitful. Like a corn dolly in England. My husband is Dionysos, god of the vine. (She reaches inside her shoulder bag and brings out a bottle of wine)

H: Better not give any to him! He's had retsina on top of a couple of pints of Theakstons already!

A: You were discussing something as I came up the hill?

P: Indeed, madam, we were discussing how, seen rightly, everything is infinite and nothing changes, including bananas...

H: Yet it looks to me as though, as I like to say, 'nothing endures except change'. It is like your thread: you hold the whole of it in your hand. Somewhere in the middle of the ball is the other end, cut by the third weird sister, the oldest Fate Atropos, somewhen or nowhen, the end of your mortal life. As you walk through life, at each moment a different piece of the thread passes through your fingers...

P: That is what we call 'now', yet all the time the whole thread is there, just as the sisters have made it.

H: How is it, if the world and everything in it is one enormous tangle of all the threads the sisters have made, forever the same, how is it, if there is no movement (as Parmenides says) in this great space-time sculpture that is the universe, how is it that things always seem to change? How do your fingers seem to travel along the thread as you unwind your twine?

A: Perhaps they don't travel. Perhaps, as a mortal, one sees only a small part of reality. Then, one can see backwards a little way too, and that gives the feeling of memory, and the illusion of movement into the future. But we never see the future, do we? Perhaps only this, now, is real, as Parmenides says, and all movement is an illusion.

H: But if we seem to see change, does this not mean that at least our awareness changes?

A: Perhaps it does. But look! There is the thread of my old thoughts, stretching down the hill there. Was I aware when I passed the first of your little markers, or the second, or the third? I would say I was. So was not, is not my awareness always there, unchanging like my fate?

H: Yet only this last marker is close enough to read: 'here and now'. I am not as I was when I put the first marker in. You see, the Banana in Time has no sense of 'here and now' - it is stretched out over any number of 'theres and thens', and 'now' means nothing to it. But to me, only this marker is true, and to you, only that bit of thread, between your fingers, now.

P (holds out his cup): Perhaps another retsina would help?

H (sternly): I don't think so.

A (pouring from her bottle): It's all right, Heraclitus. This wine is from the god.

H: Will it change us?

A: Yes. It is the wine of astonishment. Its vintage is now.

P: May I ask you something?

A: Of course!

P: If you are no longer mortal, how can the thread of your life have an end?

A: Because I am not going in the direction of the thread. I am going 'up'. I can go 'up' from any point of the thread. My thread has ends, but my existence has no end: do you see?

(P and H look at each other in puzzlement, and shrug)

P: We see this awesome view, and the flowers in your hair, and the river below...

H: ...flowing constantly...

P: ...yet ever the same...

P and H together: ...proving us both right...

A: Is not the wine good?

: : :

. . . e n d . . .

to Act 1, scene 1
to Act 1, scene 2
to Act 1, scene 3
to Act 2
to Act 3

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