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Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywoodby Orville Schell
Synopses & Reviews
In 1953, a young Orville Schell happened upon a copy of Seven Years in Tibet, Heinrich Harrer's classic account of living in Tibet during the second world war. He was hooked: "Harrer's book offered a fabulous escapist tale of an isolated, ancient, forbidden, and mysterious land whose untouched open spaces, towering mountains, and mystical religion and exotic monasteries filled with colorful pageantry were the very opposite of anything I had experienced." Schell never lost his original fascination for the mysteries of this enigmatic land perched in the shadows of the Himalayas on the highest plateau in the world. This thirteen-year-old with a taste for the exotic grew up to become one of the world's most prominent western scholars about China and Tibet. But as his knowledge and understanding of Tibet grew, Schell began to realize that the majority of his perceptions about Tibet were actually products of his fertile imagination. And, in fact, he realized, ever since Marco Polo first wrote about Tibet in the thirteenth century, Tibet has been a rich depository for the projections and fantasies of countless malcontented Westerners. Even before Schell made his first trip to Tibet in 1981 he was one of the first allowed into the country after the Chinese takeover his attitude had begun to change: "reality had begun to encroach on my fantasy of that fabled land." At the same time, the West's obsession with all things Tibetan had begun to increase exponentially. Schell first conceived of writing a book exploring "the depths of our collectively imagined Western version of Tibet" when Sony-TriStar first announced that it would make a movie version of Seven Years in Tibet starring Brad Pitt. How would Hollywood, "the most powerful mythmaking machine of all time," portray the Tibet he had come to know?: "...it was irresistible to ponder what this newest episode of our evolving love affair with Tibet would look like." The result, Virtual Tibet, is an engrossing exploration of the entire history of Western perceptions of this enigmatic land. As Schell says, "Like any other fantasies cobbled together from fragments of suggestive reality, our fantasies of places on or off this earth generally reflect far more about ourselves and our own yearnings than we perhaps care to know." As such, Virtual Tibet is indispensable reading, not just for those who have succumbed the allure of Tibet, but for anyone sincerely interested in understanding the Western psyche. Farley, Powells.com
The Dalai Lama meets The Player-from the Himalayas to Hollywood, a fantastic journey into the West's longstanding dream of Tibet.
What has made remote, mountainous Tibet and its only real celebrity, the Dalai Lama, so abidingly fascinating to the West? From Marco Polo's vision of Tibet as a land of enchanters to James Hilton's dream of Shangri-la in Lost Horizon, why have Westerners projected their yearnings onto that inaccessible place as onto no other corner on earth?In Virtual Tibet, Orville Schell, one of the preeminent experts on modern China and Tibet, undertakes a strange and wondrous odyssey into our Tibetan fantasies. He recounts the spellbinding tale of the Western adventurers, explorers, and spiritualists who for centuries were bent on reaching forbidden Tibet and the holy city of Lhasa. At the same time, Schell leads us on a riveting present-day journey from Hollywood dharma study groups and Beastie Boy "Free Tibet" concerts to a re-creation of Lhasa in the high Argentine Andes, which was the extravagant set of Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. As the past and the present, ancient customs and the superstar culture collide, Schell sheds light on the danger of blurring virtual and real worlds.
A fabulous spectacle, peopled by celebrity Buddhists and Tibetan bonzes, Yak wranglers and high-powered publicists, Steven Seagal and the Dalai Lama, Virtual Tibet is an elegantly written work of extraordinary charm, power, and insight.
"Orville Schell's imaginative and highly readable argument is that centuries of attempts to explain Tibet have ended in only deepening our mystifications. Neither the wide-eyed wonder of the early travelers nor the all-too-knowing reconstructions of the recent moviemakers have brought us any closer to reality. Cannily, Schell leads us through the accumulated layers of deception both the deliberate and the accidental to make us all better able to see what the country is really like." Jonathan Spence, author of The Chan's Great Continent
"With a wicked eye and paradoxically compassionate pen Orville Schell dissects the cult of Tibet in America. The Hollywood chapters are worthy of Nathanael West." Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls
What has made remote, mountainous Tibet and its only real celebrity, the Dalai Lama, so abidingly fascinating to the West? In "Virtual Tibet", one of the preeminent experts on the region has some answers as he undertakes a strange and wondrous odyssey into our Tibetan fantasies.
What has made remote, mountainous Tibet and its only real celebrity, the Dalai Lama, so abidingly fascinating to the West? In Virtual Tibet, Orville Schell, one of the preeminent experts on modern China and Tibet, undertakes a strange and wondrous odyssey into our Tibetan fantasies. He recounts the spellbinding adventures of the Western explorers and spiritualists who for centuries were bent on reaching forbidden Tibet and the holy city of Lhasa. Simultaneously, Schell embarks on a parallel present-day journey from Beastie Boys' "Free Tibet" concerts to a re-creation of Lhasa in the high Argentine Andes — the extravagant set of Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt.
At once comic and insightful, Virtual Tibet takes us beyond the fantasies to the reality of an isolated country that has repeatedly won the West's adoration, and paid the price for believing that our allegiance is profound.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -326) and index.
About the Author
Orville Schell, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, University of California, Berkeley, is the author of Mandate of Heaven, Discos and Democracy, The China Reader, and twelve other books. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and Newsweek, among others. He lives with his wife and children in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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