The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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SEPT 2020 Issue

Susan Philipsz: Muffled Drums/The Unquiet Grave

“Art is long and time is fleeting
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “A Psalm of Life”

This poem was the epigraph to the 1843 publication of Edgar Allen Poe's short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It was later removed in the story's 1845 republication because Poe believed that it was plagiarized by Longfellow. I can't help but feel that something was lost by omitting this melancholy epigraph. It's safe to say that Susan Philipsz might agree with me. Originally titled The Unquiet Grave, the latest site-specific sound installation by Philipsz was scheduled to be shown at the historic mansion of the Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia, but due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 earlier this year it has been adapted into a new work called Muffled Drums. Now online, this project inevitably represents a reduction of the original installation, but it is nonetheless a clever reframing that responds thoughtfully to its changed circumstances.

Muffled Drums and The Unquiet Grave take as their shared starting point the original epigraph to “The Tell-Tale Heart. The Unquiet Grave was conceived, and installed, as a series of hidden speakers distributed around the interior of the Woodlands Cemetery mansion. Echoing discordantly from these hidden places and through the halls, the sound of drums and gentle song together form a funeral dirge. Philipsz herself put it nicely in a video created to accompany Muffled Drums: "The poem compares the sound of the heart to a muffled funeral drum, and I wanted to develop that metaphor. The idea was to take those recordings and have the sounds emanate from under the floorboards and from within these wrought-iron ventilation shafts that you can see throughout the mansion." It is unfortunate that this original conception of the project could not be made available to the public. Philipsz continues:

When you think of Edgar Allen Poe, he wrote all of these incredible stories from his own home. And it was these domestic spaces that fired his imagination, and here we all are, in our own homes, under lockdown. So, what I've decided to do is to share with you some of the recordings that I've made for the mansion, so you can hear them in your own home.

She then goes on to explain how one could, using smart phones and cylinders, install the sound piece on one's own. So, I listened to Muffled Drums in my apartment—which is, incidentally, walking distance from Woodlands Cemetery.

Poe's famous short story—the tale of a murderer driven mad by the sound of their victim's still-beating heart—takes place in a domestic setting. It is a fair observation, and one that Philipsz herself makes, that all of Poe's fiction is domestic. Every story takes place indoors. “The Raven” (1845), though a poem, serves as a typical example of this particular kind of horror. A storm rages outside the comfortable bed chamber where a solitary figure reads by the fire. Suddenly, the security of the chamber is violated by a persistent tapping at the door––it reminds the protagonist of his lost Lenore. A window flies open, and a raven enters. The raven perches itself above the hearth and proceeds to heckle him with a frightening, repetitive "nevermore" until he is driven mad by the guilty memory of his love. What is frightening about this story is precisely the intrusion of what is unsafe, and uncanny, into the safety of the home. The same approach is employed in “The Tell-Tale Heart”: the safety of the murder victim's bedroom is broken by the narrator's desire to kill. But in both stories, this clean division of interior domestic spaces from the threatening outside is compromised. In “The Raven,” the reader must ask themself why the narrator is filled with so much panic when he hears the tapping noise that signals his lover's ghostly return. The circumstances of Lenore’s death remain opaque—does the narrator bear some unspoken responsibility and now fear revenge from beyond the grave? Similarly, in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the smug self-confidence of the narrator, who has successfully hidden the body of his victim from the police, is disturbed by the postmortem beating of the victim's heart, still concealed within the house. In each case, the dreadful thing thought to come from outside was, perhaps, inside all along.

In response to Poe's lucid review of Charles Dickens's 1841 serial novel Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty, in which he accurately predicted the novel's conclusion before its last installment was published, Dickens is said to have remarked: "the man must be the devil." This is a common characterization of Poe: his ability to make others uncomfortable was both a strength and weakness. In this context I like to think of the "devil" as a trickster and revealer of truth—certainly he seems to play that role in Poe’s writing. It is in this spirit that I believe Muffled Drums and The Unquiet Dead should make us, as the audience, uncomfortable, whether or not this was Philipsz's intention. Poe wrote “The Tell-Tale Heart” in Philadelphia, where he spent much of his adult life. In the 1830s and 1840s, while he was living here, a series of violent race riots broke out against various ethnic groups and Black abolitionists coming to the city. After the Industrial Revolution, Philadelphia had become a destination for people looking to make a decent living, and "nativist" retaliation brought waves of terror, death, and destruction onto the newcomers. Over the decades, many more such reactionary terrors took place, up until the present day. The dirge of Muffled Drums, off-kilter and mournful, brings with it a devil's truth: Poe's protagonists, fearful of forces from “outside” and unable to reckon with their own culpability, share much with xenophobic and paranoid white nativists, whether those of 19th century Philadelphia or the present day. In 2020, the ghosts of past and present continue to beat their funeral drums. White America still can't hear them—is too afraid to hear them. After so much death, the question is how to face the truth of our country's violence, rather than simply denying and burying it. Until this happens, there can be no rest for the dead.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2020

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