Heraclitus, Ikiru and Storytelling

Image Copyright Simon Bonneau.

He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new.

Siddhartha, Herman Hesse

Heraclitus and Heidegger

One of Heraclitus’ most famous quotes often gets translated as, “one cannot set foot in the same river twice”. This translation is based on a paraphrase by Plato in The Cratylus, who interprets the passage as a reference to Heraclitus’ concept of ‘flux’, i.e. being is in constant state of change. We cannot set foot in the same river twice, because its flowing water means that it is different from one moment to the next.

There are, however, three alleged fragments from Heraclitus himself that contradict Plato’s reading. One of these is translated as, “On those stepping into rivers staying the same other and other waters flow.” The obvious difference here is that the river is referred to as staying the same, while the water changes within it. Indeed, the inference is that the river remains the same because its water flows.

There is also another possible meaning to the fragment: it could be that Heraclitus meant to say that it is not just the river that remains the same, but also those that step into it. Human existence is in a constant state of flux, but it is maintained as something stable. We do not experience ourselves as a different person from one moment to the next. This stable ‘thing’ often gets called ‘the self’. Time may pass, but I am my ‘self’ from one moment to the next. This perception of the self as something constant can only take place on the basis of the flux of being that existence, as such, finds itself within.

Martin Heidegger revisited this idea many, many years later. He considered the self as a ‘thing’ determined through ‘being-in-the-world’. This strange, hyphenated phrase describes a ‘unitary phenomena’; it is the confluence of consciousness and that of which it is conscious. For Heidegger, the self is the perception of consciousness as a thing separate from that which it perceives. It is the beginning of the subject/object distinction.

We are so good at making this distinction that it is hard to think of existence as a unitary phenomenon. It makes sense to us that we are separate from the world and all the things in it. Even the functioning of language depends upon making the distinction between subject and object.

Heidegger’s understanding of existence is unsettling because it brings into doubt the many of the above assumptions about the self. In a way, he is suggesting that it is just a story that we tell about ourselves in order to make sense of existence. On a most basic level, we exist as being-in-the-world, but the perception of consciousness can only be some ‘thing’ that it posits, the self.


Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is the story of a civil servant, Watanabe, who discovers that he has terminal stomach cancer and does not have long to live. The revelation causes him to take stock of his life and realise that his job is meaningless and his existence unfulfilling. He realises that although he knows objectively that he has been busy all those years at work, he cannot remember doing anything of actual value. Behind his desk at the office lies a huge pile of paperwork – projects put on hold due to bureaucratic complexities. His days are spent stamping and signing page after page, adding both to the pile and his growing sense of dissatisfaction.

Following the discovery, he meets a man in a bar to whom he unburdens himself. The man at first tells him that he should not be drinking, to which Watanabe tells him that it helps to forget his pain; it helps him to ‘get outside of himself’. With the man’s help, Watanabe comes to the conclusion that his imminent demise actually marks the beginning of his life, that until that moment, he had been living as though he were already dead.

The movie follows Watanabe as he begins his ‘new life’. Firstly, he drinks and plays carnival games, indulging in trivial pleasures and seeking immediate reward. He then finds happiness by spoiling a former colleague, taking her out, buying her presents. Ultimately, both leave him desiring a more lasting sense of fulfilment, which eventually drives him back to work and the idea of approving the construction of a community park. Once it is complete, he dies happily, sitting on a bench in the newly constructed park.

The film shows a process by which Ikiru performs a type of ‘re-narration’, a process by which he tells a new ‘story’ about himself. This act of re-narration has a profound effect upon his existentiality. Our stories of self respond to our existential circumstances, but they can also change them. As we reorient ourselves within the world, different possibilities for action present themselves. It is thus that Ikiru is able to find meaning in a job that had previously become meaningless to him, and more fundamentally, to start living at the moment he begins to die.


Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, 1951.

Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru, Toho Company, 1952.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, Blackwell, Oxford, 1962.

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