Most of you have probably read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at some point in your life. A good read if there ever was one. As you might remember, it involves the hidden land of Shangri-La (which is where we get this word from), deep in the mountains of Tibet. Four unwitting passengers crash land in a small plane near the lamasery, and we are told the story by someone who met up with one of those passengers years later. The narration style is much like that of Heart of Darkness, but the story is even stranger.
The lamas at the monastery oversee a “happy valley” which is protected enough from the winds and weather for abundant farming and living in the kind of moderation believed in by the lamas, one of whom explains to their visitors:
If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself….We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think we can claim that our people are moderately chaste, and moderately honest. (50)
The lamas themselves have less moderation and more discipline and have learned how to age to wondrous numbers of years, living for centuries (but they are not immortal). As the head lama tries to entice Conway, the main character, to stay and undertake their way of life, Conway questions the purpose of such a long life:
…your sketch of the future interests me only in an abstract sense. I can’t look so far ahead. I should certainly be sorry if I had to leave Shangri-La tomorrow or next week, or perhaps even next year; but how I shall feel about it if I live to be a hundred isn’t a matter to prophesy. I can face it, like any other future, but in order to make me keen it must have a point. I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.(108)
And then the old lama tries to answer him:
There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed. It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years. We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy. We have a dream and a vision… it seemed to him [the founder] that all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world…he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…. when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air…. Can you say that his vision was untrue? (109)
And then he goes on to envisage how Shangri-La will be left, hoped to be spared, when civilization destroyed itself:
We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seek such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. Let us take what pleasure we may until that day comes… when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth. (110)
I post these long quotes because they raise questions that interest me. What is the point of extreme old age and what would we be willing to sacrifice to get it? In any case, I think it is worthwhile to think about why we are watching our diets, slogging to the gym, taking statins, replacing joints. To live longer, yes. Out of fear of dying, of course. But what are we doing with all those additional years? Are we like the inhabitants of Shangri-La, just trying to preserve a way of living?
And is there any purpose in trying to preserve a way of life that is not just fading, but disappearing at a rapid rate? The lama sees a hope that as civilization destroys itself, Shangri-La will preserve the “elegances of a dying age.” Is that the purpose for extreme old age? I do enjoy “the elegances of a dying age.” Some I can hang onto – old books and movies, classical music, setting a nice table for dinner. Some I have no choice but to watch dissolve around me. For example, rampant development has made it very hard for me to go back to some of the scenes of my youth. And I have long since given up on any hope that these “elegances” will be passed down to the next generation – who are living very different lives and have no interest in my china or acoustic piano.
There are, of course, many other reasons to want to live a long life. It might be worthwhile, however, to try to verbalize them and use them as a map if we are lucky enough to live a long life. St. Benedict thought he knew the purpose of old age; “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce [with God], that we may amend our misdeeds.” Simone de Beauvoir thought that we had to create a purpose, a project, for ourselves to make old age worthwhile. “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning.” With so many of us living longer, it is a topic worth pondering, no? And you might re-read Lost Horizon while you are thinking about it. Or look at a previous blog I wrote about the purpose of old age.
Shangri-la is a kind of utopia; it also portrays a form of gerontocracy – governing by the old. I have never written a utopia, but I once wrote a speculative novel about a gerontocracy – the Prelude of which is here. Oddly enough, although written many years ago, it starts with a pandemic virus.