The primary emotion I got from James Hilton’s Lost Horizon was weariness and longing, a longing for rest from a seething, changing, chaotic world. The novel was written in 1933 – certainly a year portending massive upheaval and violence – and was a success, especially in America.
The book is framed as a book within a book. Two former schoolfellows meet while traveling in Asia and one of them tells the other of a curious story he heard from a man named Hugh Conway, who they both knew at school and greatly admired. But Hugh Conway never lived up to the expectations many people had of him while he was at school. He was brilliant and a natural leader, but after WWI he was not the same man and settled into a career as a British civil servant in Asia.
During the revolution in China, he is charged with getting people out of Baskul, but on the last plane out there are only four people on it: Conway, a young British civil servant named Mallinson, a missionary, Miss Brinklow, and an American financier named Barnard. The plane is supposed to take them to Peshawar, but is instead hijacked and crashes in the Tibetan mountains. They are met by a man named Chang, who takes them to Shangri-la, a lamasery overlooking a village that is nestled between mountain peaks and is protected from the elements. It is so far out of the way that it almost never receives visitors.
The book is constructed somewhat like a mystery. Who are these people who live in the lamasery? Did they deliberately bring that plane to Tibet? Are they trying to keep them in Shangri-la? What is the purpose of Shangri-la? Will they stay or try to escape? But it is a mild mystery, very relaxing to contemplate. When Hugh Conway describes the affect Shangri-la has on him as “its atmosphere soothed while it’s mystery stimulated,” he could have been describing the book. There’s something about the atmosphere of the book that has a similar affect. There is mystery to interest, but it does not barrel the reader along at a breathless pace. It is a restful book to read.
Mallinson is crazy to get away. He has a fiance and family in London and a life he wants to return to. But to his consternation, the rest of the group is not quite so eager to leave. Miss Brinklow is content to continue her work as a missionary in Shangri-la and begins learning Tibetan. Barnard is on the run from the police and has been chased all over the world for financial malfeasance (he lost a packet of money during the economic crash) and finds himself unexpectedly at peace in Shangri-la, where there is truly no stress or worry or distractions. And Hugh Conway especially finds himself content, philosophically content as well
Shangri-la does not espouse a particular religion. It’s a blend of Christianity and Buddhism, with an Aristotelian outlook of moderation in all things. The primary goal of Shangri-la is, as the high lama tells Conway, to be a haven for that time when civilization destroys itself. They hope that Shangri-la will still exist, having preserved art, books and culture, and will be able to help the world rebuild. Conway is keenly interested, intelligent, and deeply sympathetic and the high lama begins to hope that Conway will take his place as high lama when he is dead.
But Lost Horizon is not a detailed suggestion for what a utopia should or would look like. It’s more like an imagination of what kind of an environment would produce rest from the world. What is the antithesis of noise and destruction? Conway thinks a lot about the dissolution of the world. “It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government Houses; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world.”
The high lama tells Conway that “he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…” Conway talks about having spent all his passion a long time ago, during WWI, and now there’s nothing left in him. He longs for the quiet, dispassionate philosophical and aesthetic life that Shangri-la offers. It’s the opposite of a passionate engagement with life and is an embrace of the mind. “His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things.”
Conway reflects a profound and premature weariness that is common in the generation that saw WWI. Mallinson, on the other hand, did not experience WWI and is bursting with life and energy. He sees the other side of Shangri-la that Conway does not. He sees it as a prison (and it’s true – people are not allowed to leave). And Conway is sympathetic to Mallinson and feels fond of him, because he sees himself in Mallinson before WWI.
Another interesting thing about Shangri-la is that it seems to be specifically for people who are world-weary. There are several lamas there – like Conway – who were busy and active while young and enjoy settling down as they age (you age very slowly in Shangri-la). But for people who do not get a chance to enjoy their youth, it drives them wild. Mallinson is like that, and also a Chinese woman named Lo-Tsen who lives at Shangri-la. She looks 17, but Chang tells Conway that she is really almost a hundred. She was found near Shangri-la when she was 17. She is lovely and the lamas find her an aesthetic presence who thy love to contemplate and listen to while she plays the harpsichord. Even Conway falls in love with her, though in a more aesthetic way. But she loves Mallinson, and not aesthetically.
Spoilers! Ultimately, Conway makes the sacrifice and agrees to help Mallinson and Lo-Tsen escape. It is his world-weary way of acknowledging that Mallinson should have the right to live his life. The irony is that it doesn’t seem to work – the man Conway later tells the story to does not know what happened to Mallinson – and Mallinson and Lo-Tsen appear to have died. And in a further irony, if Conway had managed to save Mallinson, it would have only been so Mallinson could have fought in another war, WWII, and perhaps have ended up like Conway. 1933 was a rotten year and Lost Horizon taps into that weariness from the past and fear of the future. What Lost Horizon really reminded me of is when I have a bad dream and wonder to myself if there is someplace I can go to wait out the bad dream until I wake up. That is what the book Shangri-la is like, a place to wait out a bad dream.