“Conway went to the balcony and gazed at the dazzling plume of Karakal; the moon was riding high in a waveless ocean. … He was only partly unhappy, but he was infinitely and rather sadly perplexed. He did not know whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and was now mad again.”
– Lost Horizon, chapter 11 (the scene where Conway makes up his mind to leave Shangri-La with Mallinson)
How does Lost Horizon end?
My old friend Professor Marc Bregman, to whom I owe the impetus to read Lost Horizon–and whose reading of the book is quite different from mine–tells me that the movie version ends without too much ambiguity. As in the book, Conway leaves Shangri-La with the Mallinson equivalent (Conway’s brother George, in the movie) and the Lo-Tsen equivalent. The wintry journey is grueling; the porters abandon them. Lo-Tsen (“Maria,” in the movie) falls down in the snow. The men turn her over to find her dead–and that she’s become an old woman.
The lamas were right after all. “Maria’s” youth, preserved for decades by the magic of Shangri-La, has been shattered by her departure. “George” goes mad and jumps to his death. Conway’s the sole survivor. At movie’s end, we find him struggling to find his way back to Shangri-La, the paradise from which he’s foolishly banished himself.
Thus far the movie. The novel’s entirely different.
Recall what I said in the first of these posts: it’s a story within a story, a third-person narrative framed by a prologue and an epilogue. The third-person narrative, the body of the book, consists of the novelist Rutherford’s recollections of the story Conway told him, on the basis of Conway’s once lost, now recovered (more or less) memory of his time in Shangri-La. Rutherford writes his recollections down, then hands the manuscript to the unnamed narrator of the prologue and the epilogue. In the epilogue, Rutherford and the narrator together try to puzzle out what happened to Conway, Mallinson, and Lo-tsen after they left Shangri-La. This is the part of the story that remains, perhaps permanently, lost to Conway’s memory.
Conway’s story ends with the line I quoted in my last post. He and Mallinson have reached the porters’ camp, where Lo-Tsen meets them. Plainly she’s in love with Mallinson, eager for their departure. “It seemed to him [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.” What happens next? No one knows–and in that mystery lies the book’s profundity and power.
What’s known is that Conway turned up, feverish, at a French mission hospital in Chung-Kiang (Chongqing?), China, without any papers or memory of what had happened to him. The Chinese doctor who admitted him remembered that he’d been brought in by a woman, Chinese, who herself died of fever shortly afterward. Of course Rutherford, who at the end of the book has managed to track the doctor down, asks him: “About that Chinese woman. Was she young?” And is told: “Oh, no, she was most old–most old of any one I have ever seen.”
So Lo-Tsen has turned into an old woman, as Conway and the lamas said she would? (Take her beauty away from Shangri-La, Conway tells Mallinson, “ and you will see it fade like an echo.”) That’s the impression the book gives, and it seems to be what the narrator believes. But this is very unclear. The old woman could be someone Conway met in the course of his wanderings, young Lo-Tsen either dead or gone off with (or without) Mallinson to someplace no one knows. When you think about it–is it really likely the old woman is Lo-Tsen? If Lo-Tsen indeed came to Shangri-La in 1884 at age 18, as Conway’s been told, she’d have been born in 1866. That would make her 65, or conceivably 66, at the time of Conway’s reappearance. “Most old of any one I have ever seen”? As one who’s 65 myself–I sure don’t think so.
So where does the truth lie? Was Conway sane at Shangri-La, insane before and after–or the other way round? We’re left to speculate, and thereby to search out on our own the mystery of Shangri-La.
Here’s one solid, or more or less solid fact: Lo-Tsen seems eager to go off with Mallinson. Surely she must know she’s really young? But not so fast. Perhaps she knows, or at least suspects, she’ll age as soon as she leaves with him–and goes anyway, believing with Robert Ingersoll that love is worth the price of mortality? Or as a self-sacrifice, a supreme act of devotion, to redeem the man she loves from a place she knows he hates, knowing also that he’s apt to reject her once she’s no longer the youthful beauty he imagines?
The possibilities are endless. This open-endedness is a mark of great art, secret of its immortality. It leaves us with no fixed lesson, no cut-and-dried answer to the great human questions. With its ambiguities, its unsolved riddles, it teases us to go wandering on our own.
Which brings us back to the original Four Who Entered Paradise. (Or whatever it was that they entered.)
Reread the ancient rabbinic story, which I quoted at the beginning of my first post. Mysterious, hauntingly evocative, like Lost Horizon carried to the nth degree. As in Lost Horizon, the issue of sanity and insanity, the question of where true reality lies, comes into play. It’s represented through the “madness” of Ben Zoma. It’s emphasized in an addition to the story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 14b. Rabbi Akiba says to the other three as they set forth on their expedition: “When you draw near the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water.’ For it is written, ‘He who speaketh lies shall not be established in My sight’ [Psalm 101:7].” The “stones of pure marble” apparently create an illusion of water; Akiba warns us not to fall for it.
3+1 patterns everywhere. Three live, the fourth dies (Ben Azzai). Three bear the wounds of their unearthly experience; the fourth emerges safe and sound (Akiba). Three, who are named, remain within the accepted bounds of Judaism. The fourth, cryptically called “the Other One,” breaks through those bounds. He “mutilates the young plants,” “suffers his mouth to bring his flesh into guilt”–and it’s left to us to imagine what these metaphors hint at.
Within the overall Four-ness of the story, there’s a polarity of the godly and the godless, the pious and the heretic. These are embodied in Akiba and in his shadow, “the Other One.” If I’m not mistaken, this is the same polarity as we find in Lost Horizon between Conway and Mallinson. Conway is devout, faithful, trusting in the revelations of that supreme master of faith, the High Lama of Shangri-La. Over against them Mallinson brings his reason, his senses, the evidence of his eyes and his flesh. Thus confronted, Conway’s faith dissolves. He leaves with Mallinson.
Who is right? We never really find out. We are Conway–he’s the hero, the point-of-view character. But this doesn’t guarantee that he sees reality as it is, nor does it rule out the possibility that illusion may have a higher value than reality. (Whose illusion?) The “Other One,” even if ultimately wrong, speaks a truth that must be heard.
In the story of the Four in Paradise, we are Akiba. He’s the good guy, the orthodox teacher, the one with the white hat. But the “Other One” also, even when his mouth brings his flesh into guilt, is a full-fledged member of the Four. What comes out of his mouth are words that the faithful need to hear.
But what were those words? What did “the Other One,” a.k.a. Elisha ben Abuyah, say? What did he do?
by David Halperin
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