Shangri-La

In 1933, James Hilton’s wonderful novel Lost Horizon appeared, introducing the mythical place of Shangri-La to the public’s imagination. The first movie version was released in 1937. The novel’s 1939 reprinting as “Pocket Book #1” eventually sold millions of copies. FDR jokingly said the 1942 Doolittle raid on Tokyo was launched from Shangri-La. That same year, FDR dubbed his Maryland retreat (now known as “Camp David“) “Shangri-La”, and by 1944, the name was attached to an aircraft carrier.

Wikipedia declares with great seriousness that “[a]cademic scholars have debunked the myth of Shangri-La and argued that this has less to do with an unexplored place and is more connected to a fantasy of the Western world.”  (Emphasis added.)  Oh, for Pete’s sake. Hilton wrote a novel, dammit. Others have occupied themselves with making attributions regarding Hilton’s sources and/or explanations regarding his motivations, apparently because a great story by itself apparently does not suffice.

This is the kind of twaddle that makes me embarrassed to be an academic. Please accept my humble apology for their cluelessness, not that I can do anything about that.

In Hilton’s story, a group of Westerners find themselves kidnapped to a remote Tibetan lamasery of Shangri-La, where aging is vastly slowed. There, they are not imprisoned although Nature through its forbidding landscape provides an effective jailer. The lamasery is led by an extremely old French Catholic monk, Perrault, who had happened upon the place in his middle years and who sees his role as preserving knowledge against imminent world catastrophe. The dying monk taps the leader of the kidnapped group, a young but world-weary British diplomat named Conway, to be his successor. Conway quickly found peace in this isolated paradise but is torn by loyalty to his young, impetuous assistant Mallinson and their mutual regard for a beautiful, ostensibly young postulant named Lo-Tsen, both of whom greatly desire to escape from Shangri-La.

Trigger warning: It is suggested in the novel that Asians benefit less from the slowed aging than Westerners. This plot device is, of course, totally racist, and thus all physical copies of the novel must be ritually burned, and digital ones overwritten with a zillion zeroes. If you are politically correct, you are not permitted to enjoy the following short passages, representing some of my favorite parts of this novel, and are instructed to cease and desist from reading now and to flail yourself with any handy object, the sharper the better.  Now for the rest of us…

Chang, a more advanced postulant of the lamasery, explains the philosophy of Shangri-La to the new, involuntary arrivals:

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself.

An American in the group starts a conversation with Chang:

‘Many religions are moderately true.’ You fellows up on the mountain must be a lot of wise guys to have thought that out. You’re right, too, I’m dead certain of it.”

“But we,” responded Chang dreamily, “are only moderately certain.”

Miss Brinklow is the sour, humorless puritan of the group, who’d probably vote the Democratic straight ticket if she were American (and just why would that stop her?):

“When I get back,” she said with tightening lips, “I shall ask my society to send a missionary here. And if they grumble at the expense, I shall just bully them until they agree.”

That, clearly, was a much healthier spirit, and even Mallinson, little as he sympathized with foreign missions, could not forbear his admiration. “They ought to send you,” he said. “That is, of course, if you’d like a place like this.”

“It’s hardly a question of liking it,” Miss Brinklow retorted. “One wouldn’t like it, naturally—how could one? It’s a matter of what one feels one ought to do.”

“I think,” said Conway, “if I were a missionary I’d choose this rather than quite a lot of other places.”

“In that case,” snapped Miss Brinklow, “there would be no merit in it, obviously.”

“But I wasn’t thinking of merit.”

“More’s the pity, then. There’s no good in doing a thing because you like doing it. Look at these people here!”

“They all seem very happy.”

Exactly,” she answered with a touch of fierceness.

Father Perrault muses:

The first quarter-century of your life was doubtless lived under the cloud of being too young for things, while the last quarter-century would normally be shadowed by the still darker cloud of being too old for them; and between those two clouds, what small and narrow sunlight illumines a human lifetime!

Conway, to Mallinson, regarding Lo-Tsen:

Her beauty, Mallinson, like all other beauty in the world, lies at the mercy of those who do not know how to value it. It is a fragile thing that can only live where fragile things are loved. Take it away from this valley and you will see it fade like an echo.

Conway muses:

It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality.

A novelist character in the Epilogue opines:

People make mistakes in life through believing too much, but they have a damned dull time if they believe too little.

My favorite passage involves our intrepid puritan, Miss Brinklow, addressing postulant Chang, who illustrates the proper way of addressing the ineducable and unpersuadable:

Miss Brinklow, however, was not yet to be sidetracked. “What do the lamas do?” she continued.

“They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom.”

“But that isn’t doing anything.”

“Then, madam, they do nothing.”

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