Of all the emotions that may be stirred in one during the current Coronavirus lockdown, tranquility is perhaps not the most obvious choice. Yet it is exactly how I have felt during my reading of James Hilton’s 1933 classic, ‘Lost Horizon’- enchanted tranquility. Now, I have never been cleared of the charge of being an escapist; and what better forms of escapism than to read about a remote, inaccessible monastery situated in the midst of a misty, mystified mountaintop, filled with thousands of books and many a musical virtuoso, set in a time when the general readership fantasised and fetishised about hitherto undiscovered treasures of the East that promised undreamt-of nirvana?
‘Lost Horizon’ is set in ‘Shangri-La’, the locus that inspired the eponymous hotel chain. Our current predicament bears many similarities to that of the central characters- their physical movements are more or less restricted; their companions drawn from a small, fixed group; and to put the cherry on top of the cake- the hero of the book, by the name of Conway, was himself a student at Oxford before WWI- a Greek scholar, a rowing Blue and a rising star at the Oxford Union. The four passengers of a helicopter flight tasked with transporting them out of the mutinied area of what was then British India has been hijacked by a stranger pilot and eventually delivered them to the secluded mountaintop on the Tibetan Plateau. Henceforth, two British colonial civil servants: Conway, the former star of Oxford, rather burnt out by the Great War, and his subordinate, Mallinson, an impatient young man yet to shed his school-boyish shell; and an inexplicably and facetiously chipper American and a missionary, Miss Brinklow, who is never surprised yet always slightly indignant, whilst quietly reconciling herself with what she regards as unmistakable Providence. The bewildered company found themselves at the ‘Shangri-La’, a hybrid place evocative of Medieval monasticism, Renaissance scholarship and Buddhist transcendentalism; with the added pleasure of moderate chastity and immoderate ownership of gold mines.
It might shock the kindred spirit of the 21st century to hear that three of the four abductees settled contently into their new life. The American who goes by the name of Barnard has not even the worry of his closed ones finding his name amongst those declared missing. One eventually discovers that he is, in fact, a bankrupted financier of 1933 Wall Street, on the run from the seething authorities eager to apprehend the person whose face has become the personification of the woes of the Crash. Barnard is no stoic or hermit, but rather, a contended exile revelling in his serendipitous luck. Miss Brinklow, devoted to God and his mysterious ways, soon takes on the mission of evangelising the local heathens, starting with learning Tibetan. It might be fair to say that neither is exhibiting symptoms of Stockholm syndrome or outright insanity, but it would certainly be a stretch to claim that they were enthusiastically taken with this new life.
Yet, it is to the latter category that our fellow Oxonian Conway firmly belongs. Conway’s state post-WWI has been effortlessly encapsulated by the High Lama in the term ‘passionlessness’. The rage and the shock and the sensual indulgences that were once made more delicious by the sense of rebelling against authority and approaching death had eventually proved both exhausting and unsatisfying. Conway thenceforth retreated into the cocoon of his inner life, rarely disturbed by the ebbs and flows of intense emotions. He indulged inconclusively in romantic dalliances and kept few close friends during his ten years wandering around China. Instead, he harmonised his surroundings through his distant appreciation of what he perceived as mannered, controlled and delicately flavoured cultural and artistic life, rather like the flavour and texture of boiled jasmine rice.
Shangri-La offered the ideal environment in which haste is rendered undesirable by the realisation that time is in abundance, thus eroding any shred of guilt he may have previously experienced over frivolous and flippant pursuits. Here, scholarship is a leisurely exertion and the works of Mozart the subject of harmonious, sensual indulgences. The purity of the icy, mountainous landscape bestows upon one a purity of academic and spiritual pursuits. One strolls around, appreciating the clarity of the blue moon just as freely as the detail of exquisite Sung dynasty porcelain. What was once decidedly considered to be ‘laziness’ in Conway is given full expression in his new life, liberating him from the mundane daily minutiae of colonial administration to appreciate many a Proustian delight.
This is intermittently disrupted by the desperate outbursts of the fourth character, Mallinson, who angrily tries to escape his imprisonment to return to civilisation. Mallinson proves the complete antithesis of whatever self-indulgent and self-deceiving acquiescence Conway may have exhibited – the former is unrelentingly factual whilst the latter steadfastly retreats into an inner world of intellectual fulfillment coupled with emotional detachment.
The book was an instant classic upon its publication in 1933 and many to this day enthuse over its unique ability to evoke the enchantingly ethereal landscape and the sense of quiet, spiritual exploration. Whatever this current generation may feel about the mysticism evoked by Oriental expeditions that gained so much currency in the twilight of Western imperialism, Conway’s quest to make the most of one’s circumstances and the quiet delight in inner peace shines through.
Oxford eight-week terms are a time for many things, but purity or tranquility perhaps not the most prominent ones. Coronavirus has no doubt meant a great deal of anxiety and displacement for many, but one may yet emerge from this period with gratitude for the life one has managed to forge for oneself during it. At a time when newspapers and Facebook walls are teaming with hysterical headlines and one scientific journal sound just as authoritative and headache-inducing as the next, there is perhaps virtue in embracing the prolonged immobile solitude and inactivity that one may never get a chance to experience again. In an age that relentlessly pursues increased productivity and increasingly unforgiving of the lack of overt striving, a capacity for organised and fulfilled inner life may be becoming an unappreciated commodity. But does its unappreciated status confer undesirability? I am here reminded of an anecdote recorded in the ‘Commentaries’ by the last of the Renaissance popes, Pius II, who has since been crystallised into history as the doomed commander of the Last Crusade- during one of his travels through the rustic countryside, the pope stopped and stooped beneath a goat to taste the fresh milk and marvelled at the joys of earthly existence. His entourage were shocked by his lack of display of formality or status but nonetheless quietly offered a helping hand. The pope, then plagued by gout and taxed with the precarious fortune of Christendom after a life of strenuous striving, discovered momentary relief.