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Finding America’s Lost Horizon

In the late 1930s, Depression-weary Americans turned to a movie (based upon the James Hilton novel), Lost Horizon, about a hidden Himalayan paradise, Shangri-La. In the 2000s, anxious Americans turned to Lost, a sophisticated sci-fi mystery television show set on a hidden island. As Lost’s Mr. Eko warns, we shouldn’t mistake coincidence for fate. Still…

There’s more than escapism to the popularity of Lost and Lost Horizon. Both stories call upon the yearning for freedom and for solidarity among a people challenged by divisive circumstances and their own irascibility. Freedom and solidarity aren’t idle fantasies. America was founded upon their possibility.

Storytellers have long understood that character is best revealed in crisis. Just think of the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Iliad and Odyssey. Our contemporary economic, political and environmental crises are producing just such character-revealing moments. Conservatives want to turn back the clock to some imagined paradisiacal past. Progressives want to do what their name implies, move onward through the fog.

This tug-of-war in time has always been a part of our culture, if not every culture. It is certainly represented in both Lost and Lost Horizon. Both tales are marked by conflict between characters who want to press forward and those who want to go backward.

In recent decades, the backward-tugging team is winning. The rise of the Right has pulled the nation further and further from its true horizon. Fear, retrenchment and retreat have weakened the promise of popular democracy, of freedom and empathic solidarity.

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama seemed to understand and speak to a hopeful, yearning, forward-looking spirit. He was Robert Conway, the optimistic seeker of Lost Horizon. John McCain was like Conway’s brother, George, whose fear made him want to return to the past, for a yesterday he at least could understand. George persuades Robert to leave, with tragic consequences. While I hate to say it, the Republicans appear to be turning Obama away from the future as well. At the end of Lost Horizon, Robert Conway heads again for Shangri-La. We’ll have to wait and see what Obama does.

Looking at political realities through popular cultural narratives can often tell us more about ourselves than dry analyses can. Lost deserves a look in this regard, though the series is far more than a simple political parable.

Lost is in its sixth and final season. The story does, of course, draw upon Lost Horizon and many, many other movies and films. Plane crashes land the heroes of both stories in their strange new worlds. However, their respective presences in Tibet and on the mysterious island are not accidental. Others manipulated their arrivals. The unnamed island of Lost is no paradise. It is home, though, to the odd Dharma Initiative, a Buddhist name for a distinctly Western,  scientific experiment whose participants live odd, Stepford-Families-On-An-Army base lives.

Despite its presence in Tibet, Shangri-La is peculiarly Western, too. A French priest, not a Buddhist monk, founded it. Fellows named Chang introduce newcomers to the lost worlds in both Lost and Lost Horizon. Both Shangri-La and the island of Lost seem to have magic healing powers. Shangri-La is based on the legendary lost Tibetan paradise of Shambhala. Unsurprisingly, a popular song from the 70s, “Shambala,” accompanies a wonderful moment in Lost’s third season that celebrates hope, freedom and solidarity (See the clip above).

At the heart of Lost are familiar themes. A diverse and all-too-human group of people find themselves in a strange new world. They struggle to survive. They struggle with one another. They find love and lose it, too. Despite constant references to the battle between good and evil, just who or what is good or evil remains ambiguous, at least for now.

The allusions, narrative switchbacks and time displacements of Lost make it one of the most complex and puzzling shows ever to air on network television. The mysteries and head-scratching enigmas are fun — and intellectually stimulating —  for fans. Complexity itself seems a central character. In fact, one could speculate that at the core of Lost lies the question, “Can love survive in a complex world?”

Damn good question.

Lost worlds like Plato’s Atlantis or Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island focus human drama and perhaps wring it dry, leaving either utopia or hell in place of everyday life. Sometimes, though, humanity proves more than either heaven or hell can bear.  When we tell each other our dream-stories from such transformative times and places, we may be indulging in fantasy. But we should look to these stories for clues and maybe even solutions to our real predicaments.

“Did you ever go to a totally strange place and feel certain that you’d been there before?” Robert Conway asks in Lost Horizon. Every great story makes that odd feeling rise in our hearts. Freedom feels like home.

Our popular culture is full of tales of hope and liberation. We dream of communion, cooperation and individual fulfillment. If we can dream it, we can achieve it, if only we  will heed our stories of horizons lost — and found.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith