A postmodern political fable

“The Indian Uprising”
By Donald Barthelme

“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 view it represents 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 preferred joining the establishment rather than 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 losing a long war of imperialism, hundreds of thousands of whites are trapped with 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. 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 which 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.

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 only irrelevant ancient history. The only hint of this past 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.

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.

Sylvia is an actress in erotic movies for whom the narrator is making a table out of a door. He has made one of these for each of his other relationships, all of which failed. A door is what you close behind you when you leave, and what you use to shut things away out of sight. It can be a symbol for repressing problems into your subconscious. It is the opposite of communication—not a very appropriate gift to a lover. One of the women apparently threw the door he gave her onto the barricades, so she didn’t appreciate it.

At one point he states: “Not believing that your body brilliant as it was and your fat, liquid spirit distinguished and angry as it was were stable quantities to which one could return on wires more than once, twice, or another number of times I said: ‘See the table?’” The narrator views his lover more as an unstable object than as a human being, so he tries to attract her by showing her an object he has made—the door he turned into a table. Maybe he hopes that if she likes it, that will make her a more stable presence in his life.

There are echoes here of early childhood, the infantile stage before object constancy is developed. With babies it takes awhile before they realize that their mother is always the same person, she is simply going away and coming back each time—she doesn’t cease to exist whenever she disappears. The narrator’s insecurity is similar to an infant’s.

The references to clothing—such as to Sylvia being in love not with Kenneth but with his coat—point up the importance of fashion in their consumer values. Trends and appearances are crucial. The other cultural artifacts—works of composers, writers, architects, and film makers—fall into the same category of consumer objects. As he does with women, the narrator wants to cling to these beautiful objects rather than to confront the battle raging outside.

The women in his life are revolutionaries on the side of the Comanches. Sylvia predicts the narrator will be killed soon by the rebel forces she is part of. But the yellow ribbon Sylvia wears indicates she may be in love with a cavalry soldier, who is fighting against the Indians. Since she had supported the Indians earlier, this makes the narrator ask, “Which side are you on?”

“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” is the title of a sentimental song about a woman remembering her soldier lover who is away fighting the Indians. “Which Side Are You On?” is also the title of a song, which was sung during labor struggles in the USA. It’s about having to take a stand either with the workers or the bosses. Sylvia, then, may be trying to play on both sides.

When he enters a new, masochistic relationship with Miss R., the house where they meet has steel shutters to block the outside world; that’s the only way they can feel safe.

Miss R. distrusts abstract language. To her, the only true words are the names of things, the litany she recites. It’s similar to the list of stuff on the barricades—just things without any context of meaning or relationship. Since a litany is a form of prayer, this passage could indicate that all she can pray to are the dissociated names of things on her list.

The poet William Carlos Williams had an artistic credo that is appropriate here. “No ideas but in things,” was Williams’ advice to writers. He felt that grand ideas had gotten the world into nothing but trouble; we should abandon them and stick to the simple facts around us.

The barricades the defenders are hiding behind are built of fashion items such as window dummies and silk, the litter of a consumer society, all that the city people have to protect themselves with. Also on the barricades are lots of liquor and “thoughtfully planned job descriptions (including scales for the orderly progress of other colors)”. These discarded job descriptions could be a rejection of the liberal hope that people of color can gradually progress in society.

After the inventory of the barricades and a description of the treatment of the wounded, the narrator can only repeat, “I decided I know nothing.” He can’t react to the wounded emotionally or help them practically. Unable to understand the situation, he feels numb, cut off, ignorant. The name of his friend “Block” is appropriate here. Both men have blocked feelings as if an inner door has shut them off from any deeper caring.

The narrator is trying to understand his situation with an intellectual curiosity but is not able to. He is unhappy but is not sure why. His world is strange; it almost seems to be rotting: instead of the pavement being hard and black, it is soft and yellow. The war clubs, however, still clatter against its yellow softness. Things aren’t right here.

The story fuses together elements that aren’t logically related. We jump from image to image, unconnected except on the page. This juxtaposition challenges our linear logic, our established meaning systems, our mental boundaries. The inventories and Miss R’s litany consist of words thrown together in a way that undermines the usual associations readers would make with them. This causes us to reconsider our assumptions about the objects around us and about our own use of language.

The reference to Alfred Korzybski, a writer on logic and semantics, raises the postmodern theme of the inadequacy of our conventional thought systems to accurately reflect the world. Korzybski’s work tries to free language from the shackles that he felt were put on it by the logic of Aristotle and the dualism of Descartes. Both of these tend to divide the world into opposing categories such as either-or, subject-object, cause-effect. Korzybski and Barthelme were trying to break out of the these categories, which they felt were false separations, a conceptual straitjacket that we should abandon.

The war offers the narrator no stability either. He can’t understand it, it’s not dependable. It has transformed itself into a kind of football game, with referees running out onto the field. If it’s a game, then it’s entertainment, not to be taken seriously.

The soldiers halfheartedly fighting for the city are drawn from the immigrant working class: Zoaves and cab drivers. This parallels the US Army in Vietnam, which was disproportionally from the working class. Also on their side is the Irish Republican Army, but it’s not very reliable.

The people of the ghetto have joined the rebels. The city rulers have been trying to pacify them with heroin, but it hasn’t worked, so now they are revolting too.

The garbage starting to move could be a reference to the lower class, now in full rebellion and about to take over, being looked down upon as garbage. At the end of the story the neat middle-class suburbs are being shattered by the rainstorm of revolution. The orderly life there is being swept away. The government officials are now prisoners of the rebels.

To the cruelties in society the narrator can react only abstractly. He suffers from what a psychologist would call lack of affect: he’s cut off from his feelings, his responses to other people have been anesthetized. Rather than empathizing with the victims of torture, he can only approach their suffering as an academic or an aesthetic topic, as when he describes the barbed wire as “sparkling.”

Socially, he can’t see any connection between the way people live in the city and the Indian uprising. He accepts no responsibility for the way the world is. His link between cause and effect is shattered. Perhaps any kind of knowledge is impossible.

The narrator is excited by the possibility that Miss R. will abuse him while other people watch. Kinky sex such as masochism and voyeurism is another form of sophistication for him. It’s exciting and stimulating, and he craves that.

The “new, cool color” that the flies are gathering for may be an oblique reference to blood. The fact that blood actually has a warm color, not a cool one, is another sign of the narrator’s dissociation. He is cool, unable to feel compassion. To him, atrocities have become a new form of art or a subject for scholarship.

The fact that “young people . . . run to more and more unpleasant combinations as they sense the nature of our society” is commonplace today, but it was a recent development when the story was written in the 1960s.

When the narrator advises his leaders to “Pack it in” and stop the fighting, he reflects the protests that many liberals made against the war in Vietnam. His leaders just ignore him, and their nonreaction shows that these protests were futile. But notice that he refers to them as the men in charge of the uprising. This indicates that the establishment must be running both sides of the war.

This is an expression of conspiracy theory, that everything, even the rebellion, is controlled by the same power structure. Another expression of conspiracy theory occurs earlier when the narrator says it’s the government that is sending heroin into the ghetto, rather than organized crime as most people think.

This creates confusion: things are becoming their opposite, contrary categories are switching places, distinctions are becoming blurred. The door being made into a table is an example of this. Which is it really—a table or a door? That depends on how you look at it and what you use it for. Meaning is contingent, not inherent.

Another instance of uncertainty is when the captured Comanche becomes Gustav Aschenbach, the Thomas Mann character. Death in Venice is similar to this story in that they are both about frustrated passion and impossible love.

The narrator of “The Indian Uprising” tries to forget about torturing the captured Comanche by escaping into drunkenness and love, but it doesn’t work, he can’t blot out the cruelty. Since he can’t escape from it, he tries to reduce it to images, associations, tropes—anything rather than having to face the human reality. Maybe reality doesn’t even exist, he’s beginning to think.

These incidents and many others in the story raise the theme of skepticism, of being unable to know the truth about anything. Barthelme, like most postmoderns, was a skeptic and agnostic. He felt we can know very little about the world but somehow we have to keep trying to figure it out.

Although the narrator attempts to withdraw into his personal life of art and romance, he is finally captured. Miss R., who is on the side of the Indians, tells him to strip naked, and he stares into the eyes of his captors, about to receive their judgment. His last words in the story are another fashion inventory: “paint, feathers, beads,” all things both women and Indians wear. The implication may be that feminists are part of the same revolutionary force as guerrillas.

After this, we don’t know what happens. Maybe one of the women takes her revenge for “the white, raised scars” he put on her back. Maybe the Indians take revenge for the torture. But maybe they are benevolent conquerors and send him to a reeducation camp. We can’t be sure.

And that’s an appropriate ending for the story, considering that one of its themes is the difficulty of knowing anything. This doubt of all systems of knowledge, this negative epistemology, is the prime characteristic of the postmodern.

This sense of unknowing contributes to the narrator’s anxiety about relationships. He views these as being based only in the physical world, which is always changing. He says, “You can never touch a girl in the same way more than once, twice, or another number of times however much you may wish to hold, wrap, or otherwise fix her hand, or look, or some other quality, or incident, known to you previously.” He is anxious, then, because he can’t hold onto the sensation of his lover’s touch, can’t fix her in his perceptions. Their happy moments together are fleeting. Nothing lasts.

This uncertainty and skepticism result from defining reality as that which can be perceived through the senses. His world is limited to what his nerve endings come into contact with, what can be measured. And that is always in flux.

Barthelme’s view, though, isn’t quite that confined. He would say that in addition to matter and nerve endings, we have art and language on our side. These are humanity’s great defenses against an incomprehensible universe. In what has become a much-quoted statement of the postmodern vision, the story says, “Strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole”. But does language really do that? What is it that actually binds the world together? Depending on their orientation, people might answer, ethical human relationships or divine will or the law of gravity. But here, in the world of the postmodern story, it is language. Words themselves become more important than what they refer to.

While most people try to extract patterns of meaning from their experience, to figure out what life is all about, postmodern writers claim that is merely an attempt to read significance into a meaningless chaos. They say believers in meaning are trying to comfort themselves with illusions. Their art is intended to break through these illusions and reveal the void underneath.

Chaos is certainly revealed in “The Indian Uprising”, but not much is revealed about the Indians themselves. They serve as projections of a generalized anxiety the narrator feels. They don’t exist as people but as ferocious exotics, personified threats from the outer world. They could be creatures out of a dream or a guilty conscience. They are there to comment on the narrator and his world, the white world. The reality of the Comanche nation is ignored in favor of a stereotype which exploits the image of Native-Americans. In postmodern fiction the characters are often highly artificial. They don’t have the feel of real people because the very concept of “real” is being challenged.

With the exception of this stereotyping of the Comanches, the story’s social criticism and moral engagement, its implied opposition of the narrator’s world have enduring value for us. They are pleas for a more humane, less superficial way of life. One criteria of good art is its ability to last beyond its time. Reading “The Indian Uprising” now, 45 years after it was published in Barthelme’s collection Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, we see how it reflects our current situation. The empire is once again under siege, but the outcome isn’t yet clear. It may manage to defend itself behind its current barricades of Homeland Security, PATRIOT Act, and PRISM. It may succeed in crushing this latest uprising and continue on its quest for dominance. That’s possible. But Barthelme’s story, our own stories, and the stories of its burgeoning billion enemies around the globe say the defeat of the white patriarchal capitalist empire is inevitable . . . and desirable.

William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His latest book, “Radical Peace: People Refusing War,” presents the experiences of peace activists who have moved beyond petitions and demonstrations into direct action: helping soldiers to desert, destroying computer systems, trashing recruiting offices, burning military equipment, and sabotaging defense contractors. Chapters are posted on a page of the publisher’s website. He is a member of the Freedom Socialist Party, a red feminist organization. A selection of his writing is available at peacewriter.org.

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