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
parked on the
exact same selfish
view obstructing spot
for the past
two full weeks now
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
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
The true poet
(said the very wise head in the vat)
really care too much about the fact
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