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Life Arts

The Fall of Empire

By       Message William T. Hathaway     Permalink
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"The Indian Uprising" by Donald Barthelme is an iconic short story of the 1960s heralding the defeat of the US empire and the end of  white-male dominance. Written as the USA was mired in a hopeless war, as Native-Americans and African-Americans were rebelling against oppression, and as women were breaking out of the traditional roles they had been confined to, the story predicted the victory of these insurgents over the feeble old order. Its experimental style full of dislocations and dissolutions captured the postmodern zeitgeist.

As with many icons of the 1960s, the story and the unpatriotic tone it embodied fell out of favor in the 1990s. By then, the USA had recovered from its defeat by the Vietnamese and seemed headed for full-spectrum global dominance, the insurrectionary threat of groups such as the American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party had been dissipated by assassinations, imprisonments, and token reforms, and mainstream feminism was more interested in joining the establishment than in overthrowing it. The story's predictions of the empire's demise seemed false, and its style that had once been groundbreaking seemed dated.

But now the USA is again mired in an imperialist war, millions of whites are joining blacks and natives in an expanding and increasingly militant underclass, and women are realizing that female politicians and corporate executives are serving the dominant system rather than changing it. These groups are beginning to combine into a major threat to the establishment, so the story has gained new relevance. The collapse of the power structure now seems prophetically close at hand, even cause for celebration, and the story's style is once again refreshing.

"The Indian Uprising" is widely anthologized and is available on the internet at click here. This essay is intended as an aid to appreciating it and its postmodern view. As a prerequisite, we have to accept that we won't totally understand the story or the postmodern view. One of the tenets of the postmodern is that totally understanding anything is impossible. Its writers tend to resist the impulse to define it, because definition serves the thought system they are challenging. For similar reasons they reject the term "postmodernism"; they are trying to avoid all "isms." Like Zen Buddhist teachers, they prefer an oblique approach that can lead readers out of their usual mental framework into an experience of another worldview.

Postmodern writers create confusion in their works as a way of undermining conventional concepts of understanding and truth, our received intellectual heritage. They attempt to dissolve the connections between words and what they represent, between name and form, signifier and signified. They are trying to show that meaning is shifting and impermanent, that knowledge and communication are dubious and subjective, not dependable.

Most of them shun any unifying principles that other people use to understand the world, such as generalized theories of human nature, psychology, religion, and history. But at the same time they are very theoretical themselves. Although they focus on the immediate world about them, they do so in a highly abstract way. They also emphasize the importance of random differences over apparent unity, of flux and entropy over stability and continuity. In "The Indian Uprising" Barthelme uses these elements to create a bizarre and crumbling world.

Like much postmodern art, this story communicates primarily through feelings and associations rather than rational thought. Donald Barthelme lived in New York City, and he tried to duplicate the swirl of city life in his language. He was inspired by contemporary paintings and art films, and he wrote in a similar kind of disjointed, collage style -- just placing interesting images together and letting the reader impose a structure on them. He also loved music and said people should read his fiction like they listen to music -- stay with it in the moment and be open to whatever it stirs up inside them. So the story communicates more through our subjective, connotative reactions than through objective, denotative meanings.

Although meaning is viewed as contingent, not rooted in any a priori absolutes, it is still possible. Lodged amid the confusion of "The Indian Uprising," like a pattern of tiles emerging from a chaotic mosaic, is a narrative that makes sense. The story can be read as a parable of attacks on the US power structure by revolutionary forces, from the outside by guerrillas and from the inside by women and minorities.

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It's appropriate that the guerrillas are represented by the Comanches. To figure out how to fight the war in Vietnam, the US military studied the strategies and tactics they had used against the Native Americans in the nineteenth century. They tried to apply these against the Vietnamese; this time they didn't work, of course.

Barthelme was politically left wing and opposed the USA invading Vietnam and killing millions of people to keep it from going communist. He felt the USA and the anti-communists of South Vietnam were losing the war and deserved to lose it.

In this story there's no trace of that confident winner attitude that used to be so typical of the American spirit. Now the mood is not of victory but of well-earned defeat. America's past triumphs are faded history, commemorated by the naming of streets and squares after World War II generals. The only hint of past achievement is in the baffled attitude of the narrator. From his first words, when he says, "We defended the city as best we could," his attitude seems to be, "How could this happen to me? I'm supposed to be on the winning side."

The intelligence and skills of the white males now wield no power. They are useless, turned inward, effete. They take the form of a cultural sophistication that is irrelevant to the struggle they are caught in.

The first several paragraphs set up an opposition that follows throughout the story. The public world of war and anarchy is set against a private world of frustrated love and domestic disintegration. The city is being invaded and its defenders seem helpless. They are frightened individuals obsessed with their unstable emotions and deteriorating relationships. The consumer objects that clutter their lives give them little comfort. We alternate between these two arenas, the public and the private, both of which are collapsing.

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The public world doesn't matter much to the narrator. His reports of fighting and torture are delivered in an impersonal, matter-of-fact tone. He doesn't directly participate in the battle.

His private world, however, has his full attention. It is his refuge from the fighting in the streets, but it too is failing. When it is gone, he will have nowhere to hide, and this fills him with anxiety. He cares most about affairs of the heart, but he can only approach them analytically by giving a scientific description of the heart as a physical organ.

He and Sylvia are educated consumers of culture, very concerned with aesthetics. They keep up with all the latest art, and they pride themselves in being connoisseurs, collectors of quality.

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William T. Hathaway's new book, Lila, the Revolutionary, is a fable for adults about an eight-year-old Indian girl who sparks a world revolution for social justice. Chapters are posted at A selection of his writing (more...)

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