East vs. West
The contrast of the lifestyle and ideologies of East versus West is important to the meaning of the story. At this time period of the 1930s, East and West were more polarized in the Western mind than they are today. The West’s fascination with and fear of Eastern occult practices is evident throughout the tale. Today meditation and yoga practice are not associated solely with monasteries but are common additions to Western lifestyle in the cities. At the time Hilton wrote, this knowledge was still mostly the stuff of rumor, and one had to travel to remote places to learn such techniques. Hilton got his information from books and National Geographic magazine.
The action begins with white Westerners being evacuated during a rebellion in colonial India. The frame story is from the point of view of the British colonizers. Even the first-person narrator, and Rutherford the storyteller, Conway’s sympathetic friend, betray their English background in their doubts and questioning about the exotic life of lamas. They speak in hotel rooms of lamaseries and Buddhism, although Rutherford does travel into the wilderness to try to substantiate Conway’s story. From a Western perspective the Buddhist lamas with their contemplation and peaceful withdrawal from the world seem somehow immoral, as the Christian missionary, Miss Brinklow states, “you won’t convince me that a place like this does any real good. I prefer something more practical” (Chapter 5, p. 89). The Western view is that contemplation is too passive and does nothing for the world. Miss Brinklow believes she must actively save the souls of the heathens and studies the Tibetan language so she can convert the valley natives.
Chang, the Chinese lama postulate, explains the doctrine of moderation and tolerance. Shangri-la is multicultural with several races living in peace together. Father Perrault, the original founder, was a Catholic Jesuit priest but has studied and accepted Buddhism as well. The newcomers, Barnard, Miss Brinklow, and Mallinson all bring their Western stereotypes of the East with them. Miss Brinklow watches for “symptoms of pagan degradation” but is relieved to find that the natives are completely clothed and does not find many “phallic” items in the Buddhist temple (Chapter 6, pp. 98-99). She distrusts the emphasis on pleasure and ease in Shangri-la, thinking there is only spiritual virtue in discomfort and self-denial.
Barnard notices the material details, such as that the plumbing fixtures were made in Ohio and that the lamas have imported a lot of expensive western luxuries. He discovers gold in the valley and sees the commercial potential of Shangri-la as a way to recoup his losses on the stock market. While Conway agrees with the ancient High Lama that “the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom” (Chapter 10, p. 163), Mallinson is horrified by the coldness of Shangri-la, “a lot of wizened old men crouching here like spiders” (Chapter 11, p. 192). He thinks Conway has lost his mind and gone native. He tries to bring him around to Western values again, appealing to Conway to be the hero once more and reject Shangri-la as “filthy” with its abnormally long life (Chapter 11, p. 192). While the High Lama tries to impress on Conway the horrors of another war coming, Mallinson, who has not been through war, disputes Eastern pacifism as irresponsible. If there is to be a war, they must bravely do their part to fight in it.
The difference between stereotypes of East and West, as pronounced by Barnard, Miss Brinklow, and Mallinson, and the true differences in the two approaches to life are examined more fully in the conversations between Conway and Chang, and Conway and Perrault. Chang is an Easterner who can appreciate Western knowledge, and Perrault and Conway are Westerners who have studied Eastern knowledge and are more open to what is attractive in Eastern mysticism.
The book evokes the tension between Eastern and Western points of view without fully resolving it, though part of Hilton is attracted to the contemplative ideal, and he tries to imagine positively what it would be like to live a pure life of mind and spirit. He makes Conway joke with Father Perrault that Shangri-la reminds him of Oxford, for the ivory tower of scholarship perhaps comes closest to the Western idea of withdrawal and contemplation.
Contemplation versus Action
Related to East versus West is the theme of contemplation versus action. Conway finds both tendencies within him and is haunted because though they are two sides of human nature, they seem to be irreconcilable. Conway is born a natural leader and man of action, winner of games and prizes. The narrator likens him to an Elizabethan with “casual versatility, his good looks, that effervescent combination of mental with physical activities. Something a bit Philip-Sidneyish” (prologue, p. 9). Philip Sidney, English poet, philosopher, diplomat and soldier, was a Renaissance man, the Western ideal of an integrated and whole person. Conway also has both philosophical tendencies and warrior abilities. In modern life, however, the two tendencies do not seem compatible, with the pull towards the inward life in Shangri-la on the one hand, and the British ideal of action on the other “finally beyond reconciliation” (Chapter 11, p. 191). Mallinson sees Conway as the hero who got them out of Baskul. He was decorated in the war. Conway has lived through the crucible of World War I, however, and now finds he has no ambition or taste for the world, even though “No one could better play the strong man on occasions” (Chapter 4, p. 75). He knows that his leadership at Baskul could lead to a knighthood and fame, but when he imagines going back to the West, he will have to face “dinners . . . dances . . .polo . . . all that” (Chapter 11, p. 190).
The other side of Conway exhibits a “love of quietness, contemplation, and being alone” (Chapter 1, p. 35). His “equanimity” is mistaken for “pluck” when actually he is “dispassionate” by nature. This makes him yearn for the “ecstatic tranquility of mind” he finds at the lamasery (Chapter 3, p. 57). Yet Conway has Western “skepticism” as well as a “mystical strain” (Chapter 3, p. 57). He feels free to challenge Chang and Perrault on their philosophy, because he is still “a representative of the British Government,” though he finds for himself “he had few misgivings” (Chapter 3, p. 57) at Shangri-la because it suits him. It is the kind of life he wishes for himself now. He finds himself as a “spectator in a trance” when Perrault, the High Lama, “a presence divorced from actuality” (Chapter 7, p. 119) lays before him the path of the lama, with “mind lifted to beatitude” (Chapter 7, p. 127). Perrault promises Conway “long tranquilities” and “wise and serene friendships” (Chapter 8, p. 141). Once addicted to this prospect, he is sorry about “the double life he has to lead” (Chapter 9, p. 150) with the others, pretending he is waiting for the porters so he can get out. He feels forced into being “a wanderer between two worlds and must ever wander” (Chapter 11, p. 198). Why does Conway choose the life that is less appealing to him? Perhaps because of friendship to Mallinson and the familiar demands of society: “He was doomed, like millions, to flee from wisdom and be a hero” (Chapter 11, p. 198).
When he regains his memory after his amnesia, he “has an expression of overwhelming sadness—a sort of universal sadness” (prologue, p. 17). We get an insight into this sadness as he leaves Shangri-la, for he is aware he will forever be shutting down part of himself to be the man of action: “his mind dwelt in a world of its own, Shangri-la in microcosm, and . . . this world also was in peril” (Chapter 11, p. 197). He sees “the corridors of his imagination twist and strain under impact” (Chapter 11, pp. 196-97). It takes only a fraction of his mind to become once again the man of action who does not think or feel too much.
Chang tells Conway: “our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds” (Chapter 4, p. 69). This civilized tolerance of Shangri-la is not approved of by the missionary Miss Brinklow who sees the lamas as lazy. Mallinson too has a “public school ethic,” a black-and-white code (Chapter 6, p. 108), which cannot appreciate the subtlety of Shangri-la. To these two, things are right or wrong, and anything unfamiliar is definitely wrong. Barnard, however, is amused by Chang’s saying: “many religions are moderately true” (Chapter 6, p.99 ). Chang asks, “Must we hold that because one religion is true, all others are bound to be false?” (Chapter 4, p. 69). Father Perrault sees nothing wrong in being a Jesuit priest and a Buddhist lama at the same time. He prays and practices yoga and spends time in clairvoyant meditation. He tells Conway: “We have no rigidities, no inexorable rules” (Chapter 10, p. 179).
The valley, too, is a utopian society based on moderation. The people are “good-humored and mildly inquisitive, courteous and carefree,” busy but not in a hurry (Chapter 6, p. 98). Conway wants to know if anyone fights over a woman. Chang says it would not be good manners. Courtesy smoothes things out, so that very little government is needed. Democracy would be too crude because the people would have to vote some things right and others, wrong. The government is a “loose and elastic autocracy, operated from the lamasery with a benevolence that was almost casual” (Chapter 6, p. 104). Crime is rare because no one is in want.
Moderation and tolerance and courtesy suit Conway, a man who “can see both sides of the question” (Chapter 1, p. 28). He does not have race or color prejudice and treats Orientals like Chang as equals. Mallinson, however, who has only been out of England for a year, exudes the dominating air of the British colonist towards inferior cultures. Miss Brinklow also talks down to the “natives.” Conway has lived in many countries, speaks several languages, and his wisdom and detachment have been speeded up by the years in the war. He understands moderation as the principle that upholds happiness in a world gone mad with violent extremes and political aggression.