Life is hard and brutal. The structure of industrial-technical civilization is hierarchical, greedy, violent, and increasingly oppressive. Reasonable people will have little argument with this assessment and would agree with it, I expect, since humans first began using plows. Yet, in the midst of all this darkness, there exists a light of beauty and a love of art and learning. It is the hope for something better that burns in the breast of the slave and the fast-food worker. It is extremely persistent. People of good will have striven for, died for, this better thing throughout history. It is the warmth they can't bear to see extinguished by the cold.
In my own life, I've experienced this hope and never lost it even as things got tough. I won't recite my adversities here; they have been on par with what the most of you have struggled through. It's just that I have not, so far, let go of hope, nor the appreciation of those good things in life that sustain me--love of family, home, friends, beauty in all its forms. It's why I'm writing.
This is what Lost Horizon is about. it is a depiction of that collective of beauty and higher aspirations embodied in the lamasery of Shangri-La. This place is food for the soul for those rare travelers that can appreciate it and are fortunate enough to stumble upon it. Yet Shangri-La exists as a pinpoint of light in an immense darkness. In the book, that darkness is the inevitability of World War II. Hilton describes it in words that are equally descriptive of the even greater darkness gathering in our time:
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.
Having established Shangri-La in a place that is among the world's most remote places, it is the overriding concern of the High Lama to preserve it in the face of a world that would only destroy it, if it were discovered. I believe this to be the classic concern of the wise person and of the artist--how to preserve wisdom and beauty from destruction by the world's opulent ignorance.
The High Lama's solution is simply a small hope of escaping the notice of those larger forces of evil:
...we may pray to outlive the doom that gathers around on every side...There is a chance...We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.
His hope is that when the outer world has exhausted its conflicts and struggles for supremacy, the goodness of Shangri-La will emerge in a new Renaissance that will spread again over the earth.
From my studies, it seems to me that the High Lama is right. I see no better hope than for good people to promote and preserve that which is good in the receptacle of their own lives, enduring until a time comes that appreciates what they have saved. No amount of activism can force such a change on a wide scale. The resistance is too strong and homicidal. It won't be defeated in combat, but rather, out-lived, as in the tiny mammals scurrying about the feet of the dinosaurs, too small to be a meal, waiting for their time.
Mr. Hilton says:
...when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.
You may say, "But the world could be destroyed in that time, or become uninhabitable." This is true. That's why the High Lama says it is a faint hope.
We strive to build our own Shangri-Las. These are places where we can function at our fullest, know love, encouragement, and excitement. They are not necessarily physical places, indeed, even if expressed in a physical abode, the foundation will always be intangible and laid inside of us.
Shangri-La to me is that place where I reside with my family from where I can study, contemplate, and launch our great enterprises. It is our base, our support, our shelter. It is any place we designate as such. Lately, it is a cottage-like renovation in southern US suburbia.
Our perfect places are delicate things. There's a passage in Lost Horizon where the speaker is describing the beauty of a young woman, but his words are as applicable to the beauty of Shangri-La itself:
Her beauty, Mallison, like all other beauty in the world, lies at the mercy of those who do not know how to value it. It is 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.
Ugliness, greed, hatred are strong and easy to come by in this world. They comprise the way of force that brutalizes all in its way to achieve a deluded security and an unquestioning faith, all without beauty.
But we are not of that way. We build our Shangri-Las in defiance of that, and out of a hope that rests on the shoulders of fragile things.
My review of Lost Horizons on Goodreads