From the Files of the Immanent Foundation by Norman Finkelstein. Dos Madres Press, 2018.
In 2016 Dos Madres Press published Norman Finkelstein’s The Ratio of Reason to Magic: New & Selected Poems. Reaching back to his first book of poems in 1977 and encompassing work from nine subsequent volumes, the collection marked an important milestone in the career of this major American poet. Ratio represents a culmination but also a departure. The final section, “New Poems,” lays tracks for a new series, From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. The completed volume has just been published by Dos Madres, and it stands as one of Finkelstein’s most provocative and compelling achievements to date.
From the Files of the Immanent Foundation is a pastiche of many different styles and a fugue of many different voices. The poems all relate in some way to the Foundation, a secret institution which has recently opened its gates for public access and its files for the reader’s scrutiny. The Foundation seems in part Kafkaesque allegory of metaphysical bureaucracy, in part a Joycean surreal fantasy of the unconscious, and in part a Freudian myth born out of dream-work and analysis. The Foundation is like a temple reconstructed from shards of modern poetry, horror, science fiction, mysticism, and faery tale, with pointed jabs at technocrats and administrators and hilarious send-ups of pedantic academics. As his colleague at Xavier University for twenty years and counting, I even suspect Finkelstein has drawn some material from first-hand experience at the bureaucratic institution with which he is most familiar. But it would take a pocketful of keys to unlock all the mysteries sequestered in the Foundation.
The magical and the mundane are situated side by side in the curiosity shop of this volume. Consider for instance the poem “Shard” in Part One. It focuses on the gardener of the estate. He is a purist, a curator of the original spirit of the Foundation and a firebrand critic of the lapsed state into which it has fallen. If all of this sounds like the garden might bear traces of The Garden of Eden, then you’re eating from the same apple I am. The poem is called “Shard” as if it was a broken relic from a bygone era, and accordingly it is one of the rare poems which observe regular meter and rhyme.
The upheavals then were like the upheavals now.
Consider the gardener: the grove was in his care.
He prepared the grounds to receive the new building.
He was last seen climbing the invisible stairs.
He was hidden among the broken automatons.
He wrote to his wife of how he hated the disguise.
The dashboard lights shone in the empty laboratory
As he pointed out each device he despised.
We never understood his urgency and fury,
And we could not fathom the depths of his despair,
For he claimed that the estate could not be reestablished,
That the true Foundation was to be built upon air. (29)
The image of the furious, disillusioned gardener climbing the invisible stairs is an image of transcendence. He is one of the knowing ones, one of the Gnostics, and he eventually escapes the prison of this corrupt material world, but not before giving it a piece of his mind on the way out. As soul-sapping as the Foundation can seem at times, it is also a place where little spiritual flames continue to burn. The efficient machinery never fully extinguishes the holy fire or fully eliminates the irrational, the idiosyncratic, the oddly shaped and imperfectly formed. Rebellion never succumbs entirely to conformity. Love persists among the ruins.
My favorite section of From the Files of the Immanent Foundation is Part Three, called “Code Name: Emma.” The Foundation conducts experiments on subjects referred to as “sensitives.” A sensitive is one who is unusually attuned to the spiritual dimension beyond or behind or within the material world. Emma’s sensitivity is off the charts, making her first a prodigy but later a threat. Emma unleashes a cyber-virus at the Foundation which incapacitates their carefully calibrated instruments for measuring spiritual phenomena: Reluctantly, the specialists are forced to fall back on an antiquated low-tech alternative: dream analysis. The supervisor Armitage regretfully notes in the poem “Interpretation”:
‘Hacked,’ reads the memo, but it’s a euphemism.
The network is fried, and Emma has fried it.
Their only recourse is to dreams, Emma’s dreams,
Recorded the old-fashioned way, ‘a tangle of dream-
thoughts which cannot be unraveled and which more-
over adds nothing to our knowledge of the content
of the dream.’ What did she dream, and when
did she dream it? Armitage opens the book. (64)
The embedded quotation above comes from The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud, the presiding genius throughout this fever-dream collection. Freud’s passage refers to the “dream’s navel,” that deep core of the dream which resists interpretation and insists upon concealment and obscurity (Freud 525). Placed at its literal center, the “Code Name: Emma” section is the dream’s navel of the volume. I would go even further to suggest that what Emma dreams is the substance of the book. What did she dream and when did she dream it? To find out Armitage (and the reader) opens From the Files of the Immanent Foundation.
The section ends with my favorite poem in the entire volume. It is called “Lecture.” The title at first led me to assume it was a lecture delivered by an academic or scientist who has studied Emma. However, after reading it over, I now think the first-person speaker is Emma herself, delivering a lecture (or is it a prophecy?) with her parting words of wisdom and warning to The Foundation. She seems to my ear to channel other voices, too. I hear some Dante, some Elijah the prophet, and some Tiresias from Eliot’s The Waste Land. Emma’s namesake Madame Bovary is in there, and so is that fiery gardener. Emma explains to her handlers at The Foundation, since they’re apparently incapable of figuring it out for themselves, what a soul is and what conditions are necessary to nurture it. “And she shows [them] where to look / among the garbage and the flowers,” like Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (96). Look for that soul kept safe in a little jar. Emma places that jar in the Foundation, and like Wallace Stevens’s jar placed in Tennessee, “it takes dominion everywhere” (76). It substitutes as the prosthetic soul of the Foundation and calls the wayward institution back to its true purpose. But here I am talking around the poem. Let me place it before you and let “Lecture” speak for itself.
The soul is built upon the ruins of love,
an ordered sequence of calamities extending
into the archaic dark. One by one, the objects
are charged with the power of attraction,
given up, and lost. But they are never truly
abandoned. The soul makes a dwelling place
among hollow, haunted shells, wandering
among ghost in the arcades of desire,
of promised fulfillments and longings gratified.
Never doubt its courage. Whatever it is given
is taken away, whatever its compensation
is barely adequate. It survives on scrps,
scraps of hope, and grows strong as it counts
its losses. Strange alchemy, strange mathematics,
strange necromancy here among the living.
The Foundation is a network of spies and secrets,
an infinite arcanum of hierophants and fools,
residing in a mansion of closets and trapdoors,
stairways and hallways, nested studies surrounding
a library where the scholars sleepwalk forever
and the catalogers despair. And if the soul were placed
in a little vessel, a shiny little jar of glazed ceramic
or polished wood, and if the vessel were placed
on the shelf of a cabinet of curiosities that grows
upward and outward at an incalculable rate
that seems impossible to sustain—what then?
I, whom you sent to the land of the dead; I, whom
you built out of old stories, spare parts of spirit,
a bit of a tune and few dark locks of hair;
I, the vehicle of madmen and gods, the lover
of monsters and beggars, trained to follow
instructions by disobeying all your commands—
I tell you that only in a dream can even the least
of your hopes be fulfilled. It is a dream of engineers
and handymen, of smiths and dowsers, secretaries
and ministers, analysts and assassins. You implanted
that dream in me, and now I return it to you. Like
the soul, the Foundation is built upon the ruins of love. (67-68)
The Foundation may be a metaphysical bureaucracy and a mythic dream edifice on certain levels. It is not built upon air, however, but rooted in national soil. In the current climate “Lecture” reads like a very American poem, a Jeremiad calling the nation back to the promise of its founding spirit and principles, shining rays of hope in the darkness, sounding a clarion call for endurance and courage and resistance, climbing the invisible stairs out of the ruins of love. It’s the same call I hear when I listen to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’ (60)
He may be going down, but he’s not going down without a fight and a warning and a song.
Norman Finkelstein knows his song well in From the Files of the Immanent Foundation, and one can only hope that he’s not done singing it. The final page of the book announces, “The Immanent Foundation is now closed.” However, the final sentence of this announcement dangles what I can only hope is a teaser, a preview of coming attractions: “Our final report is currently being compiled, and its availability will be announced at a future date” (100). It sounds like the recovery process may not yet be complete. One can only hope that more files from the Immanent Foundation are forthcoming imminently.
Cohen, Leonard. “Suzanne.” Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. Vintage, 1993, pp. 95-96.
Dylan, Bob. “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” The Lyrics, 1961-2012. Simon & Schuster, pp. 59-60.
Finkelstein, Norman. From the Files of the Immanent Foundation. Dos Madres Press, 2018.
Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams (Second Part). 1900. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 5. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. Hogarth Press, 1973, pp. 339-625.
Stevens, Wallace. “Anecdote of the Jar.” The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Knopf Doubleday, 2011, p. 76.