Each January, an observer in Davos will find a small, well-selected set of men and women taking refuge from the world to try to come to terms with its problems. Yet this small Swiss town was also the setting for a great work of literature: German Nobel Laureate Thomas Mann’s novel Magic Mountain—the story of a man who takes refuge from the world to come to terms with his problems.
Davos, Switzerland, is the site of the World Economic Forum’s Annual winter meeting. For a few days each January, this gorgeous mountaintop fills up with leaders and thinkers and healers, high-wattage celebrities and notable Global Philanthropists.
“Davos” has become short-hand—or smug code, depending on one’s point of view—for something other than a simple snowy mountain; it is the sine qua non of networking, and increasingly it is a place for America to, as it were, head-check her role in the World in the eyes of her peers. As Larry Summers indicated to Fareed Zakaria in his interview Sunday, the fact that the rest of the world’s powers are expanding is not at threat; rather it presents a “staggering” opportunity for this country and for the world to make enormous progress on all the things that keep us up at night: global warming, the arms race, market economics. The optimism that America continues to exhibit is notable, and important. We should be proud now, even despite the recklessness too often evident in our local politics.
Mann wrote in the wake of the vogue for Freudian analysis, and Magic Mountain shows the effects of life a “sanatorium.” As a writer, Mann’s reverence for words and his interest in the idea that talking-is-healing is axiomatic: he preaches the power of his work. Mann knew psychoanalysis was not necessarily the cure, yet it was potent.
We could say the same of diplomacy. To gather “the people who matter” in one place may not change the world, but there is no question as to the fact that it will cause the Conversation to progress. What does the Archbishop of Canterbury have in common with Lloyd Blankfein? The gamble of Davos is that by corralling the minds, the ideas will evolve—and nations with them. If it is boondoggle, it is artful in its execution.