(Continued from last week’s post:)
The secret of Shangri-La is this: Living there, you age with preternatural slowness.
Unlike in the archetypal paradise of Eden (at least according to some interpretations), you’re not exactly immortal. Sooner or later you’re going to grow old and die. But the process can take centuries rather than decades, and you preserve your youthful vigor and appearance for much of the process. The High Lama, who reveals all this to the Englishman Conway–whom he’s picked as his successor–turns out to be the same French priest who established Shangri-La in 1734, when he was 53 years old. Do the arithmetic: he was born in 1681, died in 1931 at the age of 250.
Exactly what accounts for this miracle is never made clear. It seems to have something to do with the air of the valley, combined with the meditational and narcotic practices of the lamasery. What is clear is that if you should be so foolish as to leave Shangri-La, the effect vanishes with devastating speed. Your chronological age catches up with you, with a vengeance.
Conway’s naturally curious about Lo-Tsen, the beautiful Chinese girl who plays classical piano for the four newcomers’ mealtime delectation, and on whom both he and Mallinson are developing a crush. Turns out she stumbled into Shangri-La in the year 1884, at age 18. Which makes her currently 65.
So Shangra-La is about as close to Eden as this world can possibly get. Where’s the downside?
Lo-Tsen exemplifies it–at least for some of us. Chang, who serves as the travelers’ host and guide at the lamasery, explains to Conway:
“Lo-Tsen gives no caresses, except such as touch the stricken heart from her very presence. What does your Shakespeare say of Cleopatra? — ‘She makes hungry where she most satisfies.’ A popular type, doubtless, among the passion-driven races, but such a woman, I assure you, would be altogether out of place at Shangri-La. Lo-Tsen, if I might amend the quotation, removes hunger where she least satisfies. It is a more delicate and lasting accomplishment.”
“And one, I assume, which she has much skill in performing?”
“Oh, decidedly–we have had many examples of it. It is her way to calm the throb of desire to a murmur that is no less pleasant when left unanswered.”
Which doesn’t mean you have to be celibate at Shangri-La. The lamas’ motto is moderation in all things–virtue included. The American among the four visitors is periodically taken by Shangri-La’s porters down to the valley below, for bouts of indulgence with the local liquor and the local women. (Whereas Miss Brinklow, if she has comparable impulses, will presumably need to content herself with cold showers.) But for many of us in the “passion-driven races,” this choice between the “lovely cold vase” that is Lo-Tsen, on the one hand, and faceless prostitutes on the other, is bound to be pretty grim.
I’m reminded of the remark I read somewhere in Robert Ingersoll: that given a choice between a world subject to death but with love, versus one from which both love and death had been banished, he’d pick mortality. I don’t know what Ingersoll would say about a place like Shangri-La, where love and death are present but in pale, muted, shadowy forms, stripped of all dread and ecstasy. My guess is he’d be less than enthusiastic.
Like the young Englishman Mallinson, who unlike his three companions hates, hates, hates Shangri-La and can’t wait to be away from it. And who’s discovered a side to Lo-Tsen of which old Chang has never dreamed.
Here’s where the book started getting good for me. I have to admit that when I read Lost Horizon, which I did for the first time about a month ago, I was bored and irritated through most of it. It wasn’t until the very last chapter, when Mallinson is finally given his voice, that I realized the novel’s depth and power.
“Come on, Conway, we’ve till dawn to pack what we can and get away. Great news, man … The porters are about five miles beyond the pass–they came yesterday with loads of books and things … tomorrow they begin the journey back. …. It just shows how these fellows here intended to let us down–they never told us–we should have been stranded here for God knows how much longer. … I say, what’s the matter? Are you ill?”
Conway, unbeknownst to Mallinson, is the new High Lama of Shangri-La, the old one having died hardly more than an hour ago. He knows what Mallinson doesn’t know: that the porters will never agree to conduct them to the outside world. Except that Mallinson assures him they have agreed. They’ve already been paid in advance for their service.
“But–I don’t understand ….”
“I don’t suppose you do, but it doesn’t matter.”
“Who’s been making all these plans?”
Mallinson answered brusquely: “Lo-Tsen, if you’re really keen to know. She’s with the porters now. She’s waiting.”
“Yes. She’s coming with us. I assume you’ve no objection?”
And now Mallinson, who’s been made to seem so petulant and boyish, reveals himself as the thoughtful, passionate, ethical man he is. When Conway calls Lo-Tsen “very charming,” Mallinson bursts out:
“Charming? … She’s a good bit more than that. … Admiring her as if she were an exhibit in a museum may be your idea of what she deserves, but mine’s more practical, and when I see some one I like in a rotten position I try to do something. … After all, if you’re rescuing people from something quite hellish, you don’t usually stop to enquire if they’ve anywhere else to go to.”
“There’s something dark and evil about it. The whole business has been like that, from the beginning–the way we were brought here, without reason at all, by some madman–and the way we’ve been detained since, on one excuse or another.”
Which is completely true, and someone’s finally saying it. A paradise that kidnaps its recruits and then lies to them has something wrong with it.
“It’s unhealthy and unclean–and for that matter, if your impossible yarn were true, it would be more hateful still! A lot of wizened old men crouching here like spiders for any one who comes near … it’s filthy …. Oh, why won’t you come away with me, Conway? I hate imploring you for my own sake, but damn it all, I’m young and we’ve been pretty good friends together–does my whole life mean nothing to you compared with the lies of these awful creatures? And Lo-Tsen, too–she’s young–doesn’t she count at all?”
Because what I’ve called “the secret of Shangri-La” is for Mallinson “a fantastic rigamarole.” “Believing in people hundreds of years old just because they’ve told you they are”! Does Conway have one scrap of evidence for the advanced age of the people at Shangri-La, beyond the word of Chang and the High Lama? Conway has to concede the point: he doesn’t. “I suppose the truth is,” he admits, “that when it comes to believing things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive.”
Which brings us back to Lo-Tsen.
She’s not young, he tells Mallinson. Reiterating the lovely-cold-vase theory of Lo-Tsen, he declares her beauty “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.”
To which Mallinson retorts with the equivalent of an eight-letter hyphenated obscenity:
“Oh, what stupid nonsense it all is–about her not being young! And foul and horrible nonsense, too. Conway, you can’t believe it! It’s just too ridiculous. How can it really mean anything?”
“How can you really know that she’s young?”
Mallinson half turned away, his face lit with a grave shyness. “Because I do know…. Perhaps you’ll think less of me for it, but I do know. … 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.”
“To be unfrozen?” …
Mallinson answered softly: “God, yes–she’s just a girl. I was terribly sorry for her, and we were both attracted, I suppose. I don’t see that it’s anything to be ashamed of. In fact in a place like this I should think it’s about the decentest thing that’s ever happened …”
So Lo-Tsen is a creature of the flesh after all, a human being and no museum piece. Without another word, Conway is persuaded. He and Mallinson leave the lamasery and, at dawn, reach the porters’ camp. There, just as Mallinson had said, Lo-Tsen is waiting. “It seemed to [Conway] that the little Manchu had never looked so radiant. She gave him a most charming smile, but her eyes were all for the boy.”
So Mallinson is right. Conway was wrong. The High Lama was a liar, Shangri-La no paradise but a cushioned prison, from which Conway, Mallinson, and Lo-Tsen have a chance of escaping and finding a real life.
But the story’s not quite over …
by David Halperin
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