Thought Experiments

The Same Life Twice, Frank Kuppner (264pp, 9.95, Carcanet)

Friedrich Nietzsche saw the notion of eternal recurrence (the idea that time is cyclical, causing the universe to recur an infinite number of times in an identical state) as an important thought experiment.  He believed that to be struck by the truth of this notion would be tantamount to being subject to the 'greatest burden' imaginable. To wish it to be true, on the other hand, would be to display amor fati - a love of fate, and would be the greatest possible affirmation of life.

The title of Frank Kuppner's latest work The Same Life Twice
points towards this idea. It is a book that (like Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a text which Nietzsche himself said hinged upon the idea of eternal recurrence) recognises  an enigmatic universe and asks which flotsam, which jetsam amongst the arbitrary by-products that constitute reality should be given import.

Written as a novel in verse form, the narrative occurs over roughly one thousand lyric poems.  The first two thirds of the book consists of two sequences [two lives] running in parallel, each sequence[life] home to innumerable persona, each at  varying stages of existence/ non existence; an Adam, an Eve, a God(?) devils, angels and other unnamed voices make their attendance felt. The first sequence can be read on the even pages, the second on the odd pages.

At times, these sequences seem to run along irreconcilable tangents. At others,  like two drunks talking at a party, they are almost, but not quite, in conversation; the 'even' voice may notices in '50' a former extermination camp, the 'odd' replying that 'all things are illusory...Even the deepest grief'.   They are at their most powerful, however, when they collaborate to signify the same life, lived twice, but along subtly different paths. In '54' for instance, the 'even' life  talks of a 'pleasant' man, who 'will pretty certainly have died of [stomach?] cancer by now' whilst its 'odd' counterpart merely notices a car:

     parked on the exact same selfish
     antisocial, view obstructing spot
     for the past two full weeks now
                [from '54']

Like Nietzsche, kuppner's writing is aphorismic and distinctly atheistic in its intent. 'Imagine, the universe has managed/ to get mere material to behave like you' he writes in '18', mirroring Carl Sagan's famous utterance that 'we are a way for the cosmos to know itself,', that we are 'Star stuff harvesting starlight'. He aligns himself too with the anti-theistic views expressed by the proponents of New Atheism; 'spirituality' he continues in '21', is the 'absolutely highest way / of not being honest'.

That is not to say that Kuppner does not give voice to the tensions that exist between [religious] intuition and empirical evidence. Though insisting in '314'that the spiritual is 'merely the more elusive side of the physical', another voice, the voice of '42', looking upon a skull, admits that 'they have all failed and even died',
but cannot accept that death is the sort of thing that 'we're ever going to descend to ourselves, is it?' This uncertainty manifests oftentimes in a circular self interrogation of the kind seen in David Markson's  Wittgenstein's Mistress.

At points, philosophical ideas emerge gracefully, as if being pieced together for the first time. The 'brain in a vat' hypothesis suggests in itself in a voice which asks in '151'  'is it just me who's existing' before becoming a voice in its own right some pages later:

     The true poet (said the very wise head in the vat)
     should not really care too much about the fact
             [from '169']

The implications of this thought experiment are then explored and we have the suggestion in '170' that all fantasies about reality, are, on the level of brain activity, 'a real part of the real world too'.

Unfortunately, after such erudite observations, there is often a shift towards the everyday that, far from connecting the philosophical to the everyday, feels more like a collapse into bathos and seeming irrelevance (or else the discussion continues in terms that are too vague for me too follow). On occasions Kuppner is too prescriptive; the heavily parenthesised '205' examines similar themes to those explored by Jaegwon Kim in his essay 'Lonely Souls: Causality and Substance Dualism', reads like a lecturer's notes on Kim's work and, like much of the content here, could only be classed as poetry by virtue of it appearing in a book of poetry.

Kuppner's poetic politics area reversal of the romantic narrative found in such poems as Wordsworth's 'Tintern abbey' where, looking upon nature from on high, man becomes a 'living soul'. In poem '274' ( a poem which it is hinted could function as en epitaph for the collection) Kuppner talks of ' Coming down from the summit' having been alone with 'peace, distance and light' but, losing his footing, 'plummeting' and becoming  a 'mere physical object again'.

Unfortunately, when Kuppner does (as in the case of poem '274') toe the line between being too prescriptive and too vague, allowing the meaning to fall snugly between the lines, the conclusions found therein lack the force that they could have had, had Kuppner not spent the preceding two hundred and thirty six pages expounding his belief in physicalism and the enlightenment ideals in various and largely inferior ways.

Criticisms aside, when Kuppner is at his most poetic, he succeeds in reminding us that, to the best of our knowledge and despite the thought experiments of Nietzsche, we live once. That despite each of us speaking in a cacophony of contradictory voices - 'none' Kuppner writes in  'our own' - there is one truth and one truth only, and it is within this truth that the greatest possible affirmation may or may not reside.

    Thomas White 2012