“Lost Horizon” And The Culture Of Excess

Is passion the opposite of wisdom? Is an excess of moderation possible? Does a good man owe the world his service? These questions haunt the pages of James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” like the restless specters of lost travelers.

Published in 1933, the story’s gentle blend of pragmatic, quasi-Eastern philosophy, post-WWI anxiety, and escapist fantasy, was tremendously popular. Featuring male characters who were unprejudiced, open-minded, and skeptical of authority, and female characters who were strong, independent, and accomplished, “Lost Horizon” was stunningly progressive for its time. Moreover, with its strong anti-war and anti-industrial themes, the sentiments pondered by the inhabitants of mythical Shangri-La are more relevant than ever today.

The plot of the slim, 150-page novella is straightforward. A plane crash leaves four Westerners stranded in the remote Himalayas. They are promptly rescued and welcomed into the valley of the Blue Moon — a hidden paradise nestled among brutal and impassable mountains. They are sheltered in a tranquil lamasery named Shangri-La, where they eventually learn about themselves, each other, and the mission of the lamasery itself. They also discover that, like the Eagles’ “Hotel California,” you can check out in Shangri-La, but you can never leave.

Politically, the valley of the Blue Moon operates as a sort of benevolent theocracy. The native inhabitants — an idyllic, agrarian community of several thousand — accept the leadership of the High Lama, who rules completely through the consent of the governed. As Chang, the High Lama’s emissary, explains to Hugh Conway, the book’s main character, “We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience … Crime [is] very rare, partly because only serious things are considered crimes, and partly because everyone enjoys a sufficiency of everything he could reasonably desire.”

This theme of moderation is the heart and soul of “Lost Horizon,” and the key to its perpetual appeal. Most of us, continually overloaded by the excess of modern life, can relate to a fantasy about escaping to a place where, “Our prevalent belief is in moderation … We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kind — even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself.”

To readers in the 1930s, mentally and physically exhausted by the trench warfare, mechanized death and moral ambiguity of The War To End All Wars, the safe haven offered by Shangri-La was welcome indeed. The character of Conway, shaken by the horrors of war, and disillusioned by the emptiness of superficial Western culture, personifies this state of mind. “I was excited and suicidal and scared and reckless and sometimes in a tearing rage — like a few million others, in fact,” he recalls. “I got mad-drunk and killed and lechered in great style.” Echoing the resignation of Ecclesiastes and the Stoic philosophers, and foreshadowing the emotionally-detached Vulcans of “Star Trek,” Conway concludes, “Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom.”

This “passionlessness” is praised by the ancient High Lama of Shangri-La, who tells Conway, “It is a clarity of mind that I should not have expected in anyone younger than — say, a century or so.” He means this quite literally, as it turns out, for the secret of Shangri-La, and its greatest gift, is Time. While the natives in the valley of the Blue Moon live a normal lifespan, the foreigners who accept permanent residence in Shangri-La find their aging slowed exponentially. Lo-Tsen, a beautiful Manchu princess, was stranded in Shangri-La at the age of 17. Half a century later, she barely looks to be in her twenties. The High Lama himself is over 250 years old when Conway meets him for tea and conversation.

As the High Lama explains to Conway, “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 life-time!” But you, it may be, are destined to be more fortunate, since by the standards of Shangri-La your sunlit years have scarcely yet begun. It will happen, perhaps, that decades hence you will feel no older than you are today … You will have Time — that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it. “

Conway questions the purpose of living an unnaturally long life, hiding from the world, and the High Lama reveals the true mission of Shangri-La: to collect and protect the beauty and wisdom of humanity from a coming Dark Age. The High Lama, “foresaw a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger, every book and picture and harmony, every treasure garnered through two millennia, the small, the delicate, the defenseless — all would be lost like the lost books of Livy, or wrecked as the English wrecked the Summer Palace in Peking … There will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are to secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these. The airman bearing loads of death to the great cities will not pass our way, and if by chance he should he may not consider us worth a bomb.”

Considering that “Lost Horizon” was published a decade before WWII engulfed the globe, leaving in its wake the Cold War shadow of nuclear war, the High Lama’s prophecy was eerily prescient. Today, as we face the threat of “dirty bombs” and biological weapons in the hands of barbaric fanatics who would like nothing more than to destroy, “the small, the delicate, the defenseless,” the High Lama’s invitation is tempting indeed: “Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent.”

Although it may well have inspired a young Gene Roddenberry to create the Vulcan race, who sacrificed emotion in order to create lasting peace, do not mistake Hilton’s novel as a diatribe against passion. One of the more complex relationships in the book is that of Lo-Tsen to Conway and his aide, a younger man named Mallinson. Conway reveres Lo-Tsen as a perfect, unblemished paragon of femininity. “[She] has manners, good taste in dress, attractive looks, a pretty touch on the harpsichord, and she doesn’t move about a room as if she were playing hockey,” he comments to Mallinson. “Western Europe, so far as I recollect it, contains an exceptionally large number of females who lack those virtues.”

This impression is reinforced by Chang, who tells Conway, “Lo-Tsen gives no caresses, except such as touch the stricken heart from her very presence … It is her way to calm the throb of desire to a murmur that is no less pleasant when left unanswered.” It is therefore, a tremendous shock to Conway to discover, at the climax of the story, that Lo-Tsen has fallen passionately in love with young, hot-headed Mallinson — the one character who hates Shangri-La, and is determined to escape it.

“Admiring her as if she were an exhibit in a museum may be your idea of what she deserves, but mine’s more practical,” Mallinson tells Conway, “She was cold on the surface, but that was the result of living here — it had frozen all the warmth. But the warmth was there.”

Conway warns Mallinson that Lo-Tsen’s beauty, “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.” She, along with the precious collection of art, books and music, is only safe in Shangri-La, where she is sheltered from a global civilization teetering on the brink of self-immolation.

When Mallinson chafes at their confinement to Shangri-La, Barnard, one of their fellow travelers, points out, “My goodness, if you think of all the folks in the world who’d give all they’ve got to be out of the racket and in a place like this, only they can’t get out! Are we in the prison or are they?” The answer, clearly, is a matter of perspective. For Mallinson and Lo-Tsen, the risk of death is a fair price for freedom from the gilded cage of Shangri-La. For Conway, the outside world offers nothing but confinement to heartache and futility. His attitude is reminiscent of the words of Ecclesiastes, “Better one handful with quietness than both hands full, together with struggle and strife.”

This simple love triangle between Mallinson, Lo-Tsen and Conway parallels the ideological struggle at the core of the book: Is human passion the engine of our destruction, or the essence of what it means to be alive? Conway, although only thirty-seven years old, is considered praiseworthy in Shangri-La, because he thinks like an old man. Mallinson, at twenty-four years old, detests the place, describing it as “unhealthy and unclean … A lot of wizened old men crouching here like spiders for anyone who comes near.” To him, Conway’s tranquility of mind is nothing more than the complacency of a coward shirking his duty, hiding from a civilization that needs him.

While Mallinson sees a man of Conway’s intellect and character as the property of the world, with a duty to serve that world, Conway and the High Lama see “the outside” as a hopeless pit of destruction. From their point of view, returning to a world in which “every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos,” would be a cruel and meaningless death sentence.

This difference of opinion has a clear analogue in modern political discourse: does the individual exist to serve society, or does society exist to serve the individual? When moderation is the order of the day, the answer is not so very important: if society must be moderately inconvenienced for the benefit of the individual, or the individual endures some trivial burden for the sake of society, everyone can manage. But, in a culture of excess — such as ours — it quickly becomes a matter of life and death.

Consider the issue of Euthanasia. It is one thing if society respects an individual’s decision to choose a painless death if he or she deems it preferable to the alternative (say, a terminal disease). It is quite different when society tells individuals that it is their duty to die in order to relieve society of the burden of caring for them. To take a less extreme example, an individual spending money in ways that do not benefit society may accurately be seen as selfish, but for society to spend an individual’s money for him should rightly be seen as theft.

Viewed in this light, it can be seen that both Conway and Mallinson are right, in their own ways. If Mallinson’s desire to leave were respected, and Conway’s desire to stay were acknowledged, there would be little conflict. It is only when one party attempts to force another to adopt his position that tension is created.

Ultimately, the lesson of “Lost Horizon” may be that wisdom without passion is impotent, and passion without wisdom is destructive. The Vulcan-like detachment of ancient monks may be an excellent way to safeguard culture, but — as Conway found with Lo-Tsen — it is a very limited way to experience it.

According to the High Lama, one of the strengths of of Shangri-La is, “that we are never slaves to tradition. We have no rigidities, no inflexible rules. We do as we think fit, guided a little by the example of the past, but still more by our present wisdom, and by our clairvoyance of the future.” Within this framework, the wisdom of “Lost Horizon” draws into focus. To avoid the emotional paralysis of Conway, we must acknowledge our passions, but to prevent ourselves from self-destructing like Mallinson (who was lost and presumed dead at the book’s conclusion), we should observe the single overriding precept of Shangri-La, and do so in moderation.

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.

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