“Four entered Paradise. One looked and died; one looked and went mad; one mutilated the young plants; one entered safely and came out safely.”
No, this isn’t a plot summary for James Hilton’s wildly popular novel Lost Horizon, turned by Frank Capra into a somewhat less popular film. It’s the opening of one of the most famously cryptic passages in all rabbinic literature, preserved in slightly different versions in a number of ancient Hebrew writings. And I cheated in my quotation. The Hebrew word pardes doesn’t really mean “Paradise.” But maybe it does.
I’ll explain in a minute. But first let’s listen as the ancient rabbis themselves decode their story:
“Ben Azzai looked and died. Of him it is written, ‘Precious in the eyes of the Lord is the death of His saints’ [Psalm 116:15]. Ben Zoma looked and went mad. Of him it is written, ‘Hast thou found honey? Then eat only that which is sufficient for thee, lest thou become filled therewith, and vomit it’ [Proverbs 25:16]. The ‘Other One’ mutilated the young plants. Of him it is written, ‘Suffer not thy mouth to bring thy flesh into guilt’ [Ecclesiastes 5:5]. Rabbi Akiba entered safely and came out safely. Of him it is written, ‘Draw me, we will run after thee’ [Song of Songs 1:4].”
The four men named were rabbis of the early second century CE. The best known of them is Rabbi Akiba–scholar, martyr, possibly political activist–one of the great heroes of rabbinic Judaism. “The Other One” is a hushed designation for the man who was Akiba’s polar opposite: Elisha ben Abuyah, as learned as Akiba, but somehow gone bad–a notorious heretic, libertine, and blasphemer. Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma are more obscure. There’s a story, apparently relevant to this passage, about how another rabbi finds Ben Zoma sitting in what seems like a trance. To the rabbi’s question of what’s going on, Ben Zoma gives the distinctly spacy answer: “I beheld Creation, and between the upper and the lower waters there is only the space of a handbreadth.”
The kind of talk, in other words, that you’d expect from someone who’s gone insane.
As for the word pardes, it normally means “garden” or “orchard.” But the Persian word from which it’s taken is also the source of the Greek paradeisos, from which we get our word “paradise.” In the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, Paul speaks of himself as having been “caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows … caught up into Paradise … heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.” In this passage paradeisos is apparently the same as the third heaven, or maybe located in the third heaven. (And the Greek verb harpazein, which Paul uses twice, really means “seized,” “abducted.”) Maybe the four rabbis were believed to have had a similar experience, and their pardes was “paradise” after all. Some versions of the story, actually, say that Akiba “went up safely and descended safely,” which would suggest his pardes was envisioned as somewhere up above.
Now cut to Lost Horizon. The year is 1931. Four people are abducted in a hijacked airplane into a paradise called Shangri-La, somewhere in the Himalayas. The foursome is made up of three men and one woman, three British and one American; there are probably other 3+1 patterns if we look for them. Jungians out there will know what I’m driving at: the archetype of the quaternity. I’m assuming the basic story is archetypal, and that’s what accounts for its power. That’s what makes it possible to do a comparison between two imaginative creations from such different historical contexts.
The four abductees are Mallinson, a hot-blooded young English diplomat; Conway, a somewhat older and mellower diplomat; Miss Brinklow, a not quite stereotypic missionary lady; and an American who initially introduces himself as Barnard, which turns out not to be his real name. (He’s a wanted man–a high-finance swindler of the Bernie Madoff variety.) The story is told from Conway’s point of view, he being, like Rabbi Akiba, the only one of the four who’s survived, or at least who’s come back alive.
Originally, it seems, Conway lost his memory of his stay in Shangri-La. It comes back to him, though in fragmentary fashion; and he spends a night telling his story to a novelist named Rutherford, who writes it down (in third person) and subsequently gives the manuscript to the unnamed narrator of the prologue and the epilogue. The story in between is that manuscript, which is to say, Rutherford’s recollection of what Conway told him. These details underscore the haziness of the story. We’re never quite sure how much to trust what Conway says–or, indeed, even if it is what Conway says, as opposed to Rutherford’s distorted memory of it.
The four end up at Shangri-La, a lamasery high up in a fertile, pleasant valley sheltered from the Himalayan cold. There they receive a magnificent welcome. Shangri-La might as well be a resort hotel, with central heating and modern plumbing, plus a stunning view of a conical mountain on the horizon called “Blue Moon.” But it’s also a center of learning, with a library rich in European as well as Asian classics. Conway is almost immediately drawn to the place. Young Mallinson, by contrast, can’t wait to leave. Boorishly he demands of their impeccably courteous Chinese host that porters be provided for them. When told it’ll be months before any are available, he rages like a child. Miss Brinklow and the American, meanwhile, make their own accommodations to life in Shangri-La. (Which, we slowly discover, will go on longer than any of them can possibly imagine–they’re never going to get away.) Like the four rabbis of old, each responds to this paradise in his or her individual way.
The High Lama of the place takes an interest in Conway, at first unexplained. In one of a series of private conversations, he confides to the Englishman that Shangri-La will be a refuge for human culture, preserving it through the new and worse Dark Ages that are coming. (Lost Horizon was published in 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor of Germany.) Soon, says the Lama, there will be such a storm “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. … [T]he 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.”
After speaking this prophecy, the High Lama dies. He leaves Conway as his successor, the new High Lama of Shangri-La. Almost immediately Conway has to face the restive Mallinson, who has his plan of escape all worked out–and a beautiful young Chinese girl from the lamasery ready to go with him, as his lover.
Except that lovely Lo-Tsen may not be so young. Shangri-La has secrets that Conway is beginning to understand, and Mallinson doesn’t.
Unless it’s the other way around.
by David Halperin
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