Heraclitus and City of the Mind

“You cannot step twice into the same river, and yet you do. It has carried you away, and yet you stand on the bank, looking at the point of your own departure” (21).
This excerpt aligns Matthew’s struggle with perception and understanding of London to the ideas of 5th century BCE philosopher Heraclitus. Heraclitus theorized that the universe was in a state of constant flux, that is was ever-changing. This line that Matthew says in the novel is Heraclitus’ phrase exactly. What is interesting though is that the subject of change is inverted between Heraclitus’ philosophy and Matthew’s.
If we visualize Heraclitus’ statement, the self is consistently identifiable. The molecules of water that touched your feet when you first put them in flow down the river, into oceans, replaced by new water from countless places, but somehow the river is still the same river. Conversely, the consistency of the self is not considered in Heraclitus’ explanation. The self remains to observe the subjective nature of the ever-changing river.

Lively shows Matthew’s experience with the problem in a different light, when she writes “‘this is a pile of bricks. Carefully arranged bricks, I grant you, but a pile of bricks none the less. You may call it a late Georgian house with a neo-classical portico and Coade stone dressings. Others might just call it a house. A Martian would call it a pile of bricks, if he had got as far as identifying a pile or a brick’” (p. 26). Here, the external realm is constant. The “pile of bricks” remains physically the same, but instead reflects the fluctuations of the ever-changing consciousnesses of the people around it. The people in City of the Mind are Heraclitus’ river; the rest of the world, such as architecture, is Heraclitus’ self. The pile of bricks appears to change according to how people perceive it, and eventually does change according to architectural need, both of which are necessary attributes of the people, not of the building itself. Matthew constantly struggles with the idea that he and his ex wife were once good for each other, but then, suddenly, they weren’t. The marriage was an institution, a pile of bricks, something he could identify, but he and his wife are people with fluctuating needs and perceptions.
Matthew states at several points that great architecture arises out of utility. The inevitable failure of their marriage was a simple failure for the structure of the marriage needed to change because of the changing needs, the utility. One half is lost down the river, because neither will ever change at the same rate – and as Heraclitus made clear, change exists. Matthew sees the city work the same way. Although he describes it as an organic being, it only appears so because it must adapt in utility. He himself is in the business of re-purposing buildings that can no longer function as they were originally intended to, and it takes phenomenal effort to change these buildings. If the body is controlled by the needs of the mind, and the city functions for the needs of the body of the people, then the city must be a function of the mind. Hence the title, City of the Mind (or another interpretation of the title, anyway) !


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