13 March 2009

Lost Horizon, by James Hilton

I've been working on a chapter on utopias, so I've been reading a lot of them, and this is one of the best I've encountered. This book is fascinating. It's far less didactic and moralistic than most utopian/dystopian fiction - for instance, at the end, it's actually unclear whether this ought to be considered utopian or dystopian (at least, it is to me...), which is a pretty impressive feat. There's this marvelous subtlety to the book, and a kind of mystery - it happily leaves plenty of aspects open for the reader to draw their own conclusions. 

The story is a found manuscript, or rather, related tale, of a group of people who go missing during a military conflict in India and find themselves in a mysterious Tibetan monastary. I don't want to say much more about it, because I think it's a text whose pleasures unfold gradually, but one of the things I found intriguing was the guiding principle of the monastary - moderation. There are plenty of different notions about how to organize a utopia, but this is a particularly interesting one. They're moderately virtuous, moderately chaste, moderately disciplined... it's a curious approach. 

Also, for a book written in 1934, it's kind of amazing how enlightened it's thinking on race is. It tackles a lot of orientalist stereotypes in a really intelligent way, I was impressed. In this day and age, where Tibetan Buddhism is the hippest thing on the block, ie, the orientalist impulse has gone whole hog in the other direction (which is less disastrous perhaps, but still has some serious flaws), it's nice to find a more balanced approach. 

Really, a very interesting book. Quite recommended.


gemma said...

That is a great book. I took a utopian philosophy class at my first college (seriously...) and this was part of our coursework. I should try to find my copy and give it another pass.

Anonymous said...

You might find Edward Bellamy's book "Looking backward: 1887-2000" interesting (more for historical than for literary value), even though it is very didactic and moralistic (even preachy). Written in 1887, it was a best seller at the time. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/624

Martin G*

culture_vulture said...

Thanks! It's actually sitting on my shelf right now.
I seem to recall that it anticipates the invention of the credit card?

Anonymous said...

Well, it is called "credit card", but it is really just a way to access this year's salary for shopping. (Last year's is gone, whether or not you have used it up.)

A more interesting invention is cable ("telephone") radio, with all kinds of music available at your fingertips.

"It appears to me", the main character says, "that if we [19th century people] could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements."



culture_vulture said...

It's funny, because I was just reading an essay where the author made this nice point that a lot of utopian fiction basically relies on some newly imagined technology to revolutionize the world and institute universal bliss. Meanwhile, 200, 100, even 50 years later, the technology has far surpassed even the wildest imaginations of most authors, yet universal bliss is clearly lacking. Which is kind of fascinating.