Shangri-La in Books, Movies, and Legend

I recently wrote a short story about a group of people trying to find Shangri-La. For decades, the name has stood for an earthly paradise, difficult to attain. The name was so popular in the 30’s and 40’s that before it was renamed Camp David, Franklin D. Roosevelt named the presidential retreat ground, Shangri-La. After my story was finished, I began to research this mythical place about which I realized I knew very little.

The name, “Shangri-La” entered public awareness through a novel and a movie, which I will discuss today. In my next post, I will explore the Tibetan legend of Shambhala from which core elements of the story may derive.

In David Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, Hugh Conway, a world-weary British diplomat and WWI veteran, along with three others refuges from an uprising in India, board a plane that is hijacked to the remote mountains of Tibet. They crash land in the snows and find their pilot dead. The group is rescued by a postulant lama named, Chang, who leads them to the hidden lamasery of Shangri-La, high above a fertile and temperate valley. Here Conway finds peace, the stirrings of love, and a sense of purpose when the High Lama tells him he has been chosen to oversee the mission of Shangri-La – to preserve the best of modern civilization during a world war the lama, (who is 300 years old), has seen in vision.

Did Hilton foresee WWII when he wrote his book in the early 30’s? Perhaps, but he also studied a 1931 National Geographic account of an expedition to the borders Tibet. Unexpectedly temperate valleys lie along the Nepalese border, and Hilton may also have read of the legend of Shambhala, with a similar prophesy of a world war. This prophesy is part of the Kalachakra teaching cycle the Dalai Lama presents, most recently in Washington, DC, last summer.

Lost Horizon won public notice only after Hilton published, Goodbye Mr. Chips, the following year. Because it was later published as Pocketbook #1, Lost Horizon has been mistakenly called the first American paperback.

Frank Capra read Hilton’s book and immediately decided to make the movie version. Production began in 1936, with a budget of $1.25 million, the largest for any film at the time. After a $777,000 cost overrun, Lost Horizon, was released in 1937 to critical acclaim. A New York Times reviewer called it, “a grand adventure film, magnificently staged, beautifully photographed, and capitally played.” It won Oscars for Art Direction and Film Editing, and was nominated for Best Picture.

Both the book and the movie seem dated now. The romantic vision of humans-as-noble-savage will not appeal to our modern sensibility. The idea that people will be good if freed from want echoes both the pacifism that flourished after the first world war and the socialism that grew in response to the hard times of the ’30’s. I believe in the “higher vibration” of certain places, yet when Chang tells Conway the healing properties of Shangri-La have even eliminated human jealousy, it breaks my “suspension of disbelief.”

Even with this kind of flaw, I enjoyed the book and the movie. The specifics of the Lost Horizon’s 75 year old vision may be dated, but the archetypal longing for a golden age and heaven on earth is not. The book and movie tap into this, and the tale of paradise found then lost evokes our longing for the Garden of Eden, Atlantis, Avalon, and Shangri-La. “We are stardust / We are golden / and we’ve got to get ourselves back to the Garden,” sang Joni Mitchell in her song about Woodstock, another manifestation of longing for a world of peace and joy.

This longing will not go away because it expresses our true nature, according to the view that gave birth to the legend of Shangri-La. Next time we’ll look at the legend of Shambhala, which carries predictions that will echo some we have seen in Lost Horizon.

Interlude on the Oregon Coast

I first explored the Oregon coast as an undergrad when I was studying art and photography at the U of O.  I kept a 4×5 view camera, a sleeping bag, and a coleman stove in the trunk of my ’63 biscayne.  A box of mac and cheese, a few apples, and a jar of instant coffee, and I was ready to spend a weekend poking along the backroads up and down the coast.

One of my favorite spots was the south coast town of Bandon.  With a nice state park, miles of beaches to explore, and expresso and pizza available in town, it was a fairly posh spot for camping.  That was in the mid ’70’s.  Mary and I have travelled there at various times over the years since then, but had not been up for almost a decade.

We drove last week to Bandon, and blessed with mild weather, spent some memorable days enjoying the changing leaves and the autumn light on the ocean.

The sound of the waves and the foghorn at night, drifting through an open window, brought T.S. Eliot to mind.  Here are a few photographs, and some of Eliot’s lines from The Four Quartets.

The river is within us, the sea is all about us;
The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches were it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation

It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices
Many gods and many voices.
The salt is on the briar rose,
The fog is in the fir tree.

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,

Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,
The future futureless, before the morning watch
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
Clangs
The bell.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same; you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

Literary Indigestion

This won’t be the first time I’ve said I love fantasy and have since I was a kid.  During the ’80’s, I read scores of fantasy novels, but the day finally came when I couldn’t anymore.  One too many recycled plots, wise wizards, crusty dwarves, plucky youths, heroic thieves, feisty tavern wenches, and so on.  I developed acute genre indigestion and have only recently started reading adult fantasy again.

History repeats itself.

A dozen years ago, I discovered young adult fantasy and delighted in some of the characters and stories.  Inspired by these, I even wrote my own first novel in just six months, in 2005.  Recently, however, YA fantasy has been “discovered.”  Now I find I can’t read this genre either; bandwagons and the perception of money and names to be made don’t lead to books with much imagination or heart.

A glut of vampire romance was followed by a glut of stories of Faerie and zombies.  After the success of The Hunger Games, “dystopian” tales became the theme du jour.  Now stories of were-beasts are all the rage.  I sometimes wonder if I am a snob or too harsh in my judgements, so I yesterday I took a look at the YA fantasy titles featured on Amazon.  Here are some descriptions I found in the blurbs:

“A lyrical tale of werewolves and first love.”  – I gotta say it, “Awwww!”

“explodes onto the YA scene with a brilliant nail-biter of a dystopian adventure.”  –  Think about the phrase, “YA scene.”

“A kidnapped wolf pup with a rare strain of canine parvovirus tuns regular kids into a crime solving pack.”  –  I’m a sucker for dog stories, and I like wacky superheroes, so this one sounds like the best of the bunch.

“Can a prim young Victorian lady find true love in the arms of a dashing zombie?”  –  I would have said “dashing zombie” is an oxymoron.

“A timeless love story with a unique mythology that captivates the imagination.” – The blurb didn’t say what this unique mythology might be, so you have to take the publicist’s word.

This book is “generating a Twilight-level buzz.”   I’ve never heard of it.

OK, I guess I’m being a little snarky.  It seems that today’s YA represents a successful move by writers and publishers to attract a new demographic of younger readers to what is essentially, romance.  On one hand, this largely excludes me as a reader and writer, because while I think romance is fine, it’s not my thing.   I also find it sad to think that over the near term, we’re going to have zombie love instead of books like A Wrinkle in Time, The Earthsea Trilogy, and The Golden Compass.

So what am I doing about it?  Kicking back with literary comfort food, otherwise known as light detective stories, stories with fun characters you just want to trail along with as they bring justice into the world.  In the past, I’ve devoured stories by Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, and Elizabeth Peters.  Now, thanks to my wife, I have a new main-man – Hamish MacBeth, the constable of the village of Lochdubh, Scotland, who, with his dog, Lugs, and his cat, Sonsie – and wee dram now and again – excels at solving murders.  Hamish is the creation of M.C. Beaton, the pseudonym used by author, Marion Chesney, for her mystery stories.  Born in Glasgow in 1936, she has also written 100 historical romances under a different names.

M.C. Beaton

My wife has collected a bookshelf full of MacBeth stories, and I’ve only started.  My current read is, Death of a Chimney Sweep.  In one passage, Hamish is driving an author to meet her publisher. He says to her,  “Angela, you’re taking this all to seriously.”

“What would you know?  You haven’t a single ambitious bone in your body.”

“Aye, and I like it that way.”  Hamish suddenly wished the evening was over.

I love these stories!   I will have more to say about Hamish MacBeth in my next post.

Occupied

I sat up and took notice the other night when a local news announcer complained that the “Occupy Sacramento” protestors “could not even say what they want.” In other words, they won’t play by the rules – you know, the unwritten rule that says when a TV station sends a van to cover your event, you need to have your sound-byte ready. How else can they work it into a one minute segment and move on? How else can you be neatly pigeonholed?

Actually, there is at least one articulate answer to the question of what the protestors want, supplied by Naomi Klein, a Canadian author and activist, at the “Occupy Wall Street” rally in New York. http://www.thenation.com/article/163844/occupy-wall-street-most-important-thing-world-now. This link comes courtesy of Genevieve’s blog, Look Who’s Blogging Now, which you can find on my blogroll. I suggest you check it out if you are interested in this latest eruption of frustration with the status quo, since Genevieve is off to check out the “Occupy Minnesota” protests, and will likely have more to say.

Occupy Wall Street protestors

Perhaps one reason I took special notice of the protests that night, was because I’d been reading of another famous entity that didn’t seem to be playing by the rules; I mean the universe we live in. If – and this is a big if – a large group of European physicists are right, and neutrinos really move faster than light, then some of our core assumptions about the nature of matter are wrong. Here’s a good article by Jason Palmer, science and Technology reporter for the BBC news: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2011/09/this_extraordinary_claim_requi.php

So this neutrino walks into a bar a moment after he’s ordered a beer…

Suddenly we’re faced with conclusions like these:

  • Twentieth century politics no longer works.
  • Twentieth century economics no longer works.
  • Twentieth century physics may need to be revised at its core.
  • As I have often discussed here, twentieth century publishing models are spluttering, and I’m sure you can think of other specialty areas where the past no longer functions as a reliable guide to the present.

Something similar happened a hundred years ago. In 1905, Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, and Einstein published his special theory of relativity. Nineteenth century notions of human nature and the world no longer fit. The start of World War I nine years later marked the greatest failure of business-as-usual in the history of the world (up until then).

So what happens now?

Einstein said, “The mind that creates a problem is not the mind that can solve it.” In other words, we have people who are sick of the status quo, but for the moment, avoid easy answers. Analogies to the Tea Party are obvious enough that even this week’s Saturday Night Live picked up the thread. As I recall, the media was frustrated with the Tea Party in the beginning for the same reasons – no central spokesperson, no succinct Powerpoint agenda. Once they sent people to Washington, the Tea Party got buttonholed pretty fast as a one-issue-movement. “Balance the budget without raising taxes and life will be good again.” Does anyone, even a member of congress, really believe that?

Here’s an observation by a local man:

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend? Despite reasonable differences, tea partyers and “occupiers” have far more in common with each other than with the politicos they elected to represent them. Conversely, Republicans and Democrats have more in common with each other than they do with the people who voted for them.” Bruce Maiman, “Wall Street Protestors, meet the tea partners,” editorial in The Sacramento Bee, Oct. 7, 2011, p. 13

The news media, even NPR, refused to acknowledge the occupiers for more than a week, but they didn’t go away. I hope they stay out in the open long enough for people and especially politicians to really get a glimpse of the underlying disappointment, fear, and outrage that animates so many who can no longer be soothed by simplistic answers.

What do they want? For now, “None of the above,” is a valid answer!

A Soul Day

One of my psychology professors once described a presentation he made at business conference. His subject was depression among top executives, a problem serious enough to warrant its own session.  After running through professional interventions like medication and psychotherapy, he told his audience, “There’s a simpler and far less expensive approach, though I don’t expect many of you to adopt it.”

He told them to choose one weekday a month to call in sick or take a vacation.  He insisted on a weekday, since weekends are usually given to errands and chores.  The professor called it a “soul day” and the rule was, do nothing of a goal oriented nature.  No work, no phone meetings, no fiddling with Blackberrys.  This was a day for those little desires at the edge of the mind:  a walk in the park, a family picnic when others are working, trying one’s hand at watercolor.

There were lots of protests.  When a CEO said he was too busy; the professor said that might be one of the reasons he was depressed.  Someone else feared that if he let himself “slack off,” he might not want to get out of bed.  “Then stay in bed,” the professor said.  “Sooner or later you’ll get bored and think of something interesting to do.”

I heard this story 20 years ago and still sometimes put it into practice.  It isn’t just for when you’re feeling blue; it meshes with the biblical concept of a day of rest, but it takes a special resolution, since most of the time, our days of rest are not very restful.

I’ve come back to it now because stepping outside of habitual routines can be a way of stepping outside of habitual ways of thinking, which feel a little stale as the season begins to change.  This practice isn’t as easy as it sounds.  It takes discrimination to separate what I want to do from what I think I should do, or other subtle forms of self-improvement.  But I don’t have to get it right, since being perfect takes an inordinate amount of effort.

I began yesterday with a period of an easy sort of meditation, as opposed to some of the more energetic ones.  Then I took a walk around the track at a nearby school – no problem there, for walking each day is a pleasure and something my body craves.

Later that day it took some effort not to attack a story that isn’t working, but the anxiety that came with the thought was a clue to let it go.  I did allow myself 10 minutes with a tape measure, pencil, and paper to survey which parts of the back yard fence are in need of repair.  Goal oriented, yes, but easy and the dogs needed to run around.

That’s how the day went.  No reading except the Sunday paper and a light mystery novel.  No writing except the opening paragraph of this post which I stopped after 10 minutes because I could feel myself starting to work too hard.  No cooking in the evening – we went out to dinner and brought home a key lime pie, my absolute favorite.

Sometimes I think of old pictures of ancestors – those serious, even dour looking men and women, sitting very still as they peer into the camera.  Often I imagine them frowning at “a slacker like me,” but maybe not.

I have a 4″ thick family bible that belonged to my great-great grandfather.  He inscribed the family name on the cover page in 1856.  I imagine him reading the good book aloud to his wife and eight children every evening after dinner.  For all I know, he observed the sabbath better than I ever have.  His family lived on a farm, and maybe they all took one day a week to rest and give thanks.  And eat pie – if not key lime, then almost certainly, apple or peach.

Maybe they knew something I have forgotten – but it is never too late to learn.

200 Posts!!!

It’s like one of those birthdays that end in zero.  It’s sort of like any other day – but it’s not.  This is just another post, though it’s something more at the same time.  At a minimum, this is an occasion to step back and reflect.  Here are a few random thoughts about this blog as a work in progress:

I need to update my About page:

This First Gates is no longer about what it was in the beginning.  I started writing about fiction and the process of writing.  Later I included spiritual topics, but from my current perspective, the thread animating all these posts is imagination.  Not only artistic “creative imagination.”  I use the word in the wider sense employed by psychologist, James Hillman, an influential post-Jungian thinker:

“By soul I mean the imaginative possibilities in our natures…that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical” – James Hillman, Revisioning Psychology, 1977.

I ventured into the realms of politics and economics this summer not for the subject matter alone, but because of the passions involved.  People do not get that excited over literal truths.  Along with Hillman, I’m fascinated by the reality in our fantasies and the fantasy in our “realities.”  This understanding is likely to guide my choice of subject matter in the future.

Am I slowing down?

A bit, at least over the last six weeks or so.  Through spring and early summer I was posting three or four times a week.  Lately it has been about twice a week.  Partly it’s the season and a desire to be out and about more, enjoying the warmth and the daylight while they last.  Related to that are a summer’s worth of neglected yard chores I have no excuse to avoid now that the days are growing cooler.  We also tend to travel in the fall (thought that doesn’t necessarily preclude blogging).

Nerdvana - Wifi in the Woods

There’s an ebb and flow to things like this, and I suspect I will pick up steam again as the days grow shorter and colder.

Enjoying the blogosphere:

When I started, I didn’t know other bloggers, and it took me a while to connect.  Lately the number of blogs I follow has exploded.  Sometimes I am reminded of hanging out with kindred spirits in college.  However naive the discussions, the excitement and fervor often came to mind during the years of corporate meetings, where such qualities were notable by their absence.  It’s trendy to criticize connecting online rather than face to face – as if distance and time zones and schedules are easy to overcome.  As a next-best-thing, this is a pretty decent medium for sharing stories and ideas.

Thanks to everyone:

Let me again thank everyone who stops by here to read or leave a comment.  It’s you who keep me going.  Now it’s time to go read a few blogs and mull over possible topics for post #201.

Celebrate Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week, Sept. 24 – Oct. 1 is our only national celebration of the freedom to read.  The event was founded by the American Library Association in 1982, in the face of a surge in “challenges” to books in libraries, bookstores, and schools.  The ALA reports more than 11,000 challenges since then, and estimates that 70% are never reported.  At least 348 books were challenged in 2010.  http://www.bannedbooksweek.org/.  In whatever ways we find suitable, this is a wonderful occasion to celebrate books that somebody, somewhere, did not want us to read.

Huckleberry Finn was banned by the Concord Public Library in 1885 as “trash suitable only for the slums.”

In addition to “sexually offensive” passages in Anne Frank’s diary, some readers complained that the book was “a real downer.”

The Arabian Nights, was banned both by Arab governments and the US, under the Comstock law of 1873.  (Hint – get hold of an unexpurgated edition of Burton’s translation).

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  It “centers on negative activity.”

When I found Catcher in the Rye at sixteen, I was no longer alone.  More than one generation had this experience.  The most widely banned American book between 1966 and 1975, people complained it had “an excess of vulgar language, sexual scenes, and things concerning moral issues.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Parents in Kansas objected to “vulgar language, sexual explicitness, and violent imagery,” in this autobiography.  The author mentions being raped as a girl.

A Light in the Attic supposedly,”glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.”

Of Mice and Men A second winner for Steinbeck.

The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, a Nobel Laureate.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. This award winning favorite was on the ALA most challenged list from 1990-2000 for, “offensive language and religiously objectionable content (for references to crystal balls, demons and witches).”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

Ulysses by James Joyce. The US Post office burned 500 copies in 1922.

This book has frequently been banned for the abuse James suffers. “Others have claimed that the book promotes alcohol and drug use, that it contains inappropriate language, and that it encourages disobedience to parents.”

***

I find it easy to roll my eyes and assume that the bad old days of suppressing Mark Twain are behind us.

Unlike the good people in the American Library Association, I’m not on the front lines, seeing the constant attempts to limit what we can read and think.  Banned Books Week is a perfect time to reflect on our freedoms and pass the word of this celebration to others.  And read or reread a book that someone, somewhere, tried to keep out of our hands!

Petroplague by Amy Rogers: A Book Review

Dr. Amy Rogers

Dr. Amy Rogers

Neil, a disaffected eco-activist, meets an explosives expert at 2:00am.  They drive to a deserted gas station in south-central LA.

Christina Gonzales, a PHD student at UCLA, volunteers at the La Brea tar pits.  After monstrous gas bubbles burst over the tar, Christina and her co-worker smell vinegar, which doesn’t make any sense.

An elderly woman spots a huge puddle of “drain cleaner” in the alley behind her house.  She blames the neighbors and calls the police because this could injure her cats.  A moment later, explosions rock the entire block.

Christina learns that an apparent methane explosion at a deserted gas station has ruined her PHD project, an attempt to use genetically altered bacteria to break down heavy crude oil into easy-to-harvest natural gas.

If you think these events are coincidence, you have probably never watched a disaster film.  Like the best movies in the genre, or the novels of Stephen King, Amy Rogers takes a mixed group of people, with their individual hopes, plans, secrets, and strengths, and puts them in an impossible situation.  By the time I had read this far, I was hooked.  From here, Petroplague just gets better and better – meaning the tribulations of Rogers’s characters get worse and worse.

Imagine Los Angeles, or the largest car-dependant megalopolis you know.  Imagine a mutant bacteria in the underground oil supply and the local refineries that breaks down hydrocarbons, reducing petroleum  into acetic acid and highly flammable hydrogen, among other things.  Cars stall on the freeway.  Airplanes fall from the sky.  The acid corrodes gas tanks and lines, releasing hydrogen that the smallest spark can ignite.  Nothing that runs on gasoline moves:  no firetrucks or ambulances or police cruisers.  No food deliveries or garbage pickups.  The looting begins.  Instability under the Santa Monica fault leads to bigger and bigger earthquakes.  The La Brea Tar Pits “erupt.”   When Christina and her PHD supervisor discover an antidote for the plague, both an eco-terrorist network and ruthless corporate interests are willing to go to any lengths to suppress it.

Are you scared yet?  If not, as Yoda told Luke, You will be!  Because this is just the beginning.  Now that we care about Christina, the real chills and thrills begin.  Eco-terrorists smuggle the petroplague out of the LA quarantine area and plot to release it worldwide in a matter of days.  Christina and her allies face virtually every danger you can think of as LA spins into chaos – and some you can’t.  Think of all the seat gripping you do watching James Cameron movies like,  The Terminator and Titanic.  This is what Amy Rogers does; she throws the good guys into a tight situation and keeps cranking up the pressure.

I read lots of thriller/action adventure stories.  When you become familiar with a genre, you begin to recognize conventions and trends.  As anyone who has glanced at this week’s movie listings can attest, epidemics are a standard disaster scenario, but as far as I know, Rogers’s story question is unique – what would happen in our oil-dependant world if a petroleum-destroying plague got loose?

A lot of books in this genre suffer from forgettable heroes and two-dimensional villains.  Psychopaths are a dime a dozen these days, but not in Petroplague.  Several of the bad guys are idealists-gone-wrong, sometimes-conflicted fanatics of conscience, who you cannot hate even as you cringe at their actions.  One of the evil-doers is a corporate higher-up, willing to screw anyone or everyone in the name of profit.  Even if that is a stereotype, it is not hard to imagine in our post-economic meltdown world.

We bond with the heroes of the story because they are very human, even as events evoke courage they didn’t know they had.  When Christina first learns of the plague, all she can think of is her ruined dissertation, but her circle of concern and her actions rapidly grow beyond self-interest.  Her cousin, River, and River’s boyfriend, Mickey, are ready to run when things get tough – but they don’t.  A politician who survived a helicopter crash in Iraq, finds the courage to pilot another chopper filled with fuel that might have been compromised by the plague.

It’s always a pleasure to post here about a book I really enjoyed.  I couldn’t put this one down.  I urge you to stop by Amy Rogers’s web site to learn more about the author and the various formats in which you can read Petroplague.  http://www.amyrogers.com/