Sunday, November 06, 2005
I picked up Mari Sandoz's biography Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas thanks to a review in the excellent The Morning News. Sandoz is not Indian but, like Kurban Said/Lev Nussimbaum, an immensely sympathetic outsider who manages to articulate the animating spirit of a culture and way of being from the inside out. Her bio is written from the perspective of the Sioux as the whites arrive, settle, and overrun the Plains Indians in the latter half of the 19th century. Though the text has many locutions that sound, to my cliche-addled ears, like bad Hollywood (I think Peter Pan has ruined the image of an Indian saying 'How!', or as Sandoz has it, 'Hou'), there is much in it that has an authentic oddness.

The story itself is remarkable, complex, and powerful. Crazy Horse is a figure easy to mythologize as there is very little direct information about him, just a competing set of recollections drawn from audiences with competing and shifting agendas. Sandoz does an excellent job of pointing to some of the untranslatable gaps between the cultures and not trying to tie them up neatly. The Sioux are noble, but also treacherous, petty, greedy. When they feel bad, they go killing and stealing horses. Crazy Horse himself is insanely brave, and compassionate, but also nearly launches a destructive war because of his awkward love for Black Buffalo Woman (who is, at the margin, someone worth a novel or several).

One of the most compelling parts of the book for me is reading about the rituals of the Sioux designed to foster clarity of purpose--dances, sweat lodges, isolation, visions. I was struck by the contrast with our own--how much of the Sioux process of coming to meaning is structured around these rituals--drawing medicine into oneself, or accessing the latent medicine of your being or character. This has particular poignancy for Crazy Horse as the arc of his life moves towards its inevitable defeat, his surrender, betrayal and death. He emerges from this as an odd sort of saint, with his greatness thrust upon him. He reminded this image of Merton's:
...when the solidtary finds that his solitude has taken on the character of a mission, he discovers that he has become a force that reacts on the very heart of the society in which he lives, a power that disturbs and impedes and accuses the forces of selfishness and pride, reminding others of their own need for solitude and for charity and for peace with God.

To see Crazy Horse gradually take on this role, this mission, to see him try to adapt as the world he knew disappears, raises all of the fascinating and tragic questions of how to be in the world as it changes--what adaptation is necessary and what destroys us--what is inevitable, what change is possible--what may be essential to our nature in our way of being and what we may be able to accomodate or deny or reject. These are vital questions for any moment in time, but especially now, in the midst of turbulent change, some aspects of which are surely inevitable, and others which we are being vigorously harangued to believe are inevitable (and not just inevitable, but good, positive). (4 stars)

In order to sate some of my Crazy Horse jones, I read the Larry McMurtry bio of him that is a part of the Penguin Lives series. The bio itself is good--more of a commentary on other bios and their authors than a stand-alone bio. I enjoyed it, and it was a quick read (141 roomy pages), but I'm not sold on the short-form bio--it provokes mroe questions than it answers, and I can't imagine being interested enough to read a book on someone and being satisfied by the pith of a bio like this one. McMurtry is far more skeptical than Sandoz (and he is quite skeptical of her, and does a little damning with faint praise). It opened up some other lines of inquiry for me, in particular a desire to read more about the Sioux language, and to take another look at Brian Hall's dense, rich I Should be Extremely Happy in Your Company. As for the Penguin lives, I was given a set of four, and will give them another try (maybe Mary Gordon on Joan of Arc? Garry Willis on Saint Augustine?). Perhaps something in the interplay of writer and subject will bring more than thougthful competence. (2 stars) And, by the way, who thought Patricia Bosworth on Marlon Brando was a worthy subject for the series? Is that one sponsored by OK magazine?


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