Saturday, January 9, 2016

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

The most interesting part of this book is its protagonist--Hugh Conway.

There was also in his nature a trait which some people might have called laziness, though it was not quite that. No one was capable of harder work, when it had to be done, and few could better shoulder responsibility; but the facts remained that he was not passionately fond of activity, and did not enjoy responsibility at all. Both were included in his job, and he made the best of them, but he was always ready to give way to any one else who could function as well or better. It was partly this, no doubt, that had made his success in the Service less striking than it might have been. He was not ambitious enough to shove his way past others, or to make an important parade of doing nothing when there was really nothing doing. His despatches were sometimes laconic to the point of curtness, and his calm in emergencies, though admired, was often suspected of being too sincere. Authority likes to feel that a man is imposing some effort on himself, and that his apparent nonchalance is only a cloak to disguise an outfit of well-bred emotions. With Conway the dark suspicion had sometimes been current that he really was as unruffled as he looked, and that whatever happened, he did not give a damn. But this, too, like the laziness, was an imperfect interpretation. What most observers failed to perceive in him was something quite bafflingly simple--a love of quietness, contemplation, and being alone.

He is, in short, an ideal anti-hero, a personality that any devout bookworm will undoubtedly see him or herself in, and start rooting for from the very beginning. Not rooting to win, to overcome, or to triumph, of course. But rooting instead to remain as he is--quiet, contemplative, and alone--despite the unending conflicts thrust upon him by the novel’s other characters.

Characters like Mallinson, a young man twelve years Conway’s junior, but serving with him in the British Army, and posted together in a British colony in revolt. It’s called Baskul in the book, and is located, evidently, somewhere in the present day Middle East. They, with two others, are abducted and flown under mysterious circumstances deep into the Himalaya mountains and have to make a dangerous trek to a hidden and unknown lamasery for any chance to survive. They are led there by a seemingly random group of Tibetans, carrying one of the monks to the same destination in a kind of emperor’s chair.

“Well, it’s quite certain we could never found our way here by ourselves,” said Conway, intending to be cheerful, but Mallinson did not find the remark very comforting. He was, in fact, acutely terrified, and in more danger of showing it now that the worst was over. “Should we be missing much?” he retorted bitterly. The track went on, more sharply downhill, and at one spot Conway found some edelweiss, the first welcome sign of more hospitable levels. But this, when he announced it, consoled Mallinson even less. “Good God, Conway, d’you fancy you’re pottering about the Alps? What sort of hell’s kitchen are we making for, that’s what I’d like to know? And what’s our plan of action when we get to it? What are we going to do? ...

In this, and in many other regards, Mallinson is set up as the exact opposite of Conway. As loud, rash and destitute in loneliness as Conway is quiet, contemplative and serene. They are, obviously, but not gratuitously, the Western and Eastern philosophies personified.

To Mallinson’s pertinent question, Conway responds quietly:

… “If you’d had all the experiences I’ve had, you’d know that there are times in life when the most comfortable thing is to do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen. The War was rather like that. One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness.”

The War Conway refers to is World War I, and his experience in it will figure large in what has shaped the character that he now uses to interact with the world around him. When Mallinson asks how Conway can remain so cool about their present circumstances, Conway replies, referring first to his time in the War, but then, their time together in Baskul:

“It’s because so much else that I can look back on seems nightmarish too. This isn’t the only mad part of the world, Mallinson. After all, if you must think of Baskul, do you remember just before we left how the revolutionaries were torturing their captives to get information? An ordinary washing-mangle, quite effective, of course, but I don’t think I ever saw anything more comically dreadful. And do you recollect the last message that came through before we were cut off? It was a circular from a Manchester textile firm asking if we knew of any trade openings in Baskul for the sale of corsets! Isn’t that mad enough for you? Believe me, in arriving here the worst that can have happened is that we’ve exchanged one form of lunacy for another. And as for the War, if you’d been in it you’d have done the same as I did, learned how to funk with a stiff lip.”

So Conway is a person already conditioned for the contemplative life, who sees madness in the affairs of the world, and holds himself aloof from it. He is exactly, as it turns out, what the aging monks at the lamasery have been looking for.

Here, for example, is a revealing exchange between Conway and the High Lama of the lamasery (called Shangri-La in the novel; the first literary use of that term, as near as I can tell).

“My son, you are young in years, but I perceive that your wisdom has the ripeness of age. Surely some unusual thing has happened to you?”

Conway smiled. “No more unusual than has happened to many others of my generation.”

“I have never met your like before.”

Conway answered after an interval: “There’s not a great deal of mystery about it. That part of me which seems old to you was worn out by intense and premature experience. My years from nineteen to twenty-two were a supreme education, no doubt, but rather exhausting.”

“You were very unhappy at the War?”

“Not particularly so. I was excited and suicidal and scared and reckless and sometimes in a tearing rage--like a few million others, in fact. I got mad-drunk and killed and lechered in great style. It was the self-abuse of all one’s emotions, and one came through it, if one did at all, with a sense of almighty boredom and fretfulness. That’s what made the years afterwards so difficult. Don’t think I’m posing myself too tragically--I’ve had pretty fair luck since, on the whole. But it’s been rather like being in a school where there’s a bad headmaster--plenty of fun to be got if you feel like it, but nerve-racking off and on, and not really very satisfactory. I think I found that out rather more than most people.”

“And your education thus continued?”

Conway gave a shrug. “Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom, if you care to alter the proverb.”

“That also, my son, is the doctrine of Shangri-La.”

“I know. It makes me feel quite at home.”

When I say the monks have been looking for someone like Conway, I mean that literally, because it is eventually revealed to Conway and his comrades that their kidnapping was calculated to bring them--not them specifically, but people like them, from the busy and frenetic world outside--both to help populate and perpetuate the quiet and separate way of life at Shangri-La.

Mallinson, of course, will have nothing to do with this, constantly agitating for a group of lamas to take them back to something closer to civilization as he understands it--or to arrange for one of the porters that bring supplies to the lamasery. In this, Mallinson is repeatedly disappointed.

In contrast, Conway takes to the life of Shangri-La as if bred to it. Here’s a typical passage contrasting their two mindsets.

Even Mallinson had acquired a touch of half sulky complacency. “I suppose we shan’t get away to-day after all,” he muttered, “unless somebody looks pretty sharp about it. These fellows are typically Oriental, you can’t get them to do anything quickly and efficiently.”

Conway accepted the remark. Mallinson had been out of England just under a year; long enough, no doubt, to justify a generalization which he would probably still repeat when he had been out for twenty. And it was true, of course, in some degree. Yet to Conway it did not appear that the Eastern races were abnormally dilatory, but rather that Englishmen and Americans charged about the world in a state of continual and rather preposterous fever-heat.

Eventually, Conway is not just asked to stay at Shangri-La, he is asked to take over for the dying High Lama. He has been observed and studied for months by the ancient masters of the place who, despite themselves, find him unique.

“But there is, I admit, an odd quality in you that I have never met in any of our visitors hitherto. It is not quite cynicism, still less bitterness; perhaps it is partly disillusionment, but it is also a clarity of mind that I should not have expected in any one younger than--say, a century or so. It is, if I had to put a single word to it, passionlessness.”

Conway answered: “As good a word as most, no doubt. I don’t know whether you classify the people who come here, but if so, you can label me ‘1914-1918.’ That makes me, I should think, a unique specimen in your museum of antiquities--the other three who arrived along with me don’t enter the category. I used up most of my passions and energies during the years I’ve mentioned, and though I don’t talk much about it, the chief thing I’ve asked from the world since then is to leave me alone.”

Like Conway, the High Lama is powerfully anti-war. In fact, Shangri-La itself was founded by the High Lama’s predecessor, who wanted it to be the last place on earth that the horrors of war could never reach. Here’s how the High Lama explains that originally purpose to Conway.

“There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed. It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years. …

Quick note on that. The people living at Shangri-La, once having given themselves over to quiet and untroubled contemplation, evidently live for hundreds of years. Go figure.

… We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy. We have a dream and a vision. It is a vision that first appeared to old Perrault when he lay dying in this room in the year 1789. He looked back then on his long life, as I have already told you, and it seemed to him that all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might some day crush them until there were no more left in the world. He remembered sights he had seen with his own eyes, and with his mind he pictured others; he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army of the Grand Monarque. And he perceived that when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air. … Can you say that his vision was untrue?”

This book was written in 1933. The fictional events depicted are taking place in 1931. The novel, like its protagonist, has emerged seared and stoic from the cataclysm of World War I, and now looks askance at a world hurtling itself towards another conflagration. And in the midst of that screaming madness, those who listen will hear a small voice of wisdom whispering from both the past and from the remotest part of the world.

All the loveliest things are transient and perishable...and war, lust and brutality can crush them, perhaps to the point of extinction. It is, to my way of thinking, the best single thought expressed in the novel’s short 277 pages.

But let’s move on. Conway responds.

“True indeed.”

“But that was not all. He 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 millenniums, 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 Pekin.”

“I share your opinion of that.”

“Of course. But what are the opinions of reasonable men against iron and steel? Believe me, that vision of old Perrault will come true. And that, my son, is why I am here, and why you are here, and why we may pray to outlive the doom that gathers around on every side.”

“To outlive it?”

“There is a chance. It will come to pass before you are as old as I am.”

“And you think that Shangri-La will escape?”

“Perhaps. We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. 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 spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. Let us take what pleasure we may until that time comes.”

“And then?”

“Then, my son, when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at least be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Shangri-La, then, like the secret libraries in Fahrenheit 451 or the emotional content of Winston Smith’s mind in Nineteen Eighty-Four, is to be humanity’s final place of refuge, where the intellectual and contemplative triumphs of the race can be kept safe and rekindled when it is time for them to flourish again.

Here’s the scene, on the High Lama’s death bed, when this dark, yet hopeful vision of the future is given its full form.

“I place in your hands, my son, the heritage and destiny of Shangri-La.”

At last the tension broke, and Conway felt beyond it the power of a bland and benign persuasion; the echoes swam into silence, till all that was left was his own heartbeat, pounding like a gong. And then, intercepting the rhythm, cam the words:

“I have waited for you, my son, for quite a long time. I have sat in this room and seen the faces of new-comers, I have looked into their eyes and heard their voices, and always in hope that someday I might find you. My colleagues have grown old and wise, but you who are still young in years are as wise already. My friend, it is not an arduous task that I bequeath, for our order knows only silken bonds. To be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without--it will all be very pleasantly simple for you, and you will doubtless find great happiness.”

Again Conway sought to reply, but could not, till at length a vivid lightning-flash paled the shadows and stirred him to exclaim: “The storm...this storm you talk of…”

“It will be such a one, my son, as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos. Such was my vision when Napoleon was still a name unknown; and I see it now, more clearly with each hout. Do you say I am mistaken?”

Conway answered: “No, I think you may be right. A similar crash came one before, and then there were the Dark Ages lasting five hundred years.”

“The parallel is not quite exact. For those Dark Ages were not really so very dark--they were full of flickering lanterns, and even if the light had gone out of Europe altogether, there were other rays, literally from China to Peru, at which it could have been rekindled. But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are too 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.”

“And you think all this will come in my time?”

“I believe that you will live through the storm. And after, through the long age of desolation, you may still live, growing older and wiser and more patient. You will conserve the fragrance of our history and add to it the touch of your own mind. …

You will conserve the fragrance of our history and add to it the touch of your own mind. Pardon the interruption, but isn’t that also a pretty good description of what I’m trying to do with this blog, what all artists of all stripes are trying to do with their art?

… You will welcome the stranger, and teach him the rule of age and wisdom; and one of these strangers, it may be, will succeed you when you are yourself very old. Beyond that, my vision weakens, but I see, at a great distance, a new world stirring in the ruins, stirring clumsily but in hopefulness, seeking its lost and legendary treasures. And they will all be here, my son, hidden behind the mountains in the valley of Blue Moon, preserved as by miracle for a new Renaissance…”

The speaking finished, and Conway saw the face before him full of a remote and drenching beauty; then the glow faded and there was nothing left but a mask, dark-shadowed, and crumbling like old wood. It was quite motionless, and the eyes were closed. He watched for a while, and presently, as part of a dream, it came to him that the High Lama was dead.

It seems, both to the High Lama and to this reader, like the perfect match. The dispassionate anti-hero, coupled with the progressive and peace-minded wisdom of the ages.

How bitterly disappointing then, in the end, when Conway chooses to leave Shangri-La with Mallinson, not because Conway wants to leave, per se, but because he believes Mallison is not likely to survive the journey without his help.

Deep below them the valley of Blue Moon was like a cloud, and to Conway the scattered roofs had a look of floating after him through the haze. Now, at that moment, it was farewell. Mallinson, whom the steep ascent had kept silent for a time, gasped out: “Good man, we’re doing fine--carry on!”

Conway smiled, but did not reply; he was already preparing the rope for the knife-edge traverse. It was true, as the youth had said, that he had made up his mind; but it was only what was left of his mind. That small and active fragment now dominated; the rest comprised an absence hardly to be endured. He was a wanderer between two worlds and must ever wander; but for the present, in a deepening inward void, all he felt was that he liked Mallinson and must help him; he was doomed, like millions, to flee from wisdom and be a hero.

How biting that last word--hero. As if Hilton knew I would exult in Conway as the prototypical anti-hero, and he, determined to use his authorial omnipotence against my desires, had decided to rub my nose in it as well.

I’m not sure who Hilton thought he was writing for in 1933, but this reader certainly did not want Conway to be a “hero,” risking his life for the life of a fellow comrade-in-arms. Given the contextual premise of the novel, the only way to interpret that behavior is as something that contributes to the destruction of wisdom and beauty.

Maybe that's why Hilton calls the horizon lost in the book's title?

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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