🔒 Davos decadence: Finding wisdom in Mann’s “Magic Mountain” – Adrian Wooldridge

In an era dominated by the glitz of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Adrian Wooldridge argues for a more profound retreat into literature, specifically Thomas Mann’s 1924 masterpiece, “The Magic Mountain.” Contrasting the decadence of Davos with Mann’s allegory of prewar Germany, Wooldridge reflects on the exhaustion, stagnation, and disconnect in today’s world. Drawing parallels between Mann’s characters’ ideological clashes and contemporary political discourse, Wooldridge implores readers to seek insights from literature, reminding us that, unlike Mann’s prewar Europe, we still have time to rewrite our story.

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By Adrian Wooldridge

It’s that time of the year again — when educated people everywhere take a break from the office, disconnect their electronic devices and reread Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Pushy people might have flown to the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering in Switzerland and shuffled from meeting to meeting. Sophisticated people, though, prefer to lose themselves in the Davos of Mann’s imagination.

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It’s not just that the novel is one of the masterpieces of literature while Davos deals in corporate boilerplate. It’s that Mann’s 1924 work still has far more to teach us about the state of today’s world than any number of politicians, central bankers and opinion leaders.

The annual meeting of the WEF is a vast exercise in decadence. What could be more decadent than traveling across the world in a private jet to discuss “net zero and climate-positive policies”? Or boasting about diversity, equity and inclusion when you pay yourself three hundred times as much as your frontline workers?

The theme of this year’s conference was “rebuilding trust” — as if a jamboree of the well-heeled and well-connected in an exclusive ski resort would do anything other than further erode trust in the global establishment. How fitting that the first day of the conference was marked by a resounding victory for Donald Trump in the Iowa Republican caucus.

Thomas Mann said everything that is worth saying about decadence in The Magic Mountain — and you can absorb his wisdom without risking your neck rushing from one overcrowded WEF panel to another. The book was based on his stay, together with his wife, in a sanitorium in Davos in 1912, but it turned into an allegory of the morbid state of the whole of German culture.

It tells the story of Hans Castorp, a young German engineer who visits his cousin in a sanitorium for people suffering from tuberculosis. He intends to stay for three weeks but, after briefly falling ill, ends up staying for seven years, warned by doctors that his brief illness might be a symptom of something more serious. He is quickly seduced by the routine life of the place, with its gargantuan meals, afternoon naps and 24-hour medical supervision. But the life is as degenerate as it is seductive — sickly, morbid and hermetically sealed from the wider world.

The decadence of the WEF is very different from the one skewered by Mann. The delegates to the WEF are hyperactive while the patients in the sanitorium are lethargic — the former rush from meeting to meeting rather than having five or six meals a day. They listen to worthy talks about problems and solutions by heads of governments, central bankers and star professors rather than, like Mann’s characters, sticking their heads in the sand.

But there are profound similarities beneath the surface. There is the same quality of exhaustion in today’s world and that of Mann’s prewar Germany. For all our obsessive hyperactivity, never more clearly on display than among the masters of the universe on a mountain, we have run out of steam. Economies are stagnant, particularly in Europe. Culture is stuck on repeat — think of all those remakes and sequels. And there is the same disconnect between those gathered at Davos — whether delegates or sanitorium dwellers — and the rest of the world.

The WEF, however, doesn’t offer anything that compares with the argument about the future of liberal society in The Magic Mountain.

In the book, Castorp falls in with two intellectuals who live in the village of Davos below his sanitorium: an Italian humanist called Lodovico Settembrini and a Jewish-born cosmopolitan called Leo Naphta who is drawn to the Communist revolution and traditional Catholicism. The two men carry on a bitter argument about the relative merits of liberalism and illiberalism that touches on every question that mattered in prewar Europe: nationalism, individualism, fairness, tradition, war, peace, terrorism and so on.

Settembrini mechanically repeats the central tenets of liberalism but doesn’t seem to realize that the world is a very different place from what it was in 1850. Naphta splutters with contempt. “The mystery and precept of our age is not liberation and development of the ego,” says Naphta. “What our age needs, what it demands, what it will create for itself, is — terror.” Naphta puts his dedication to terror into practice by “winning” his argument with Settembrini by challenging the humanist to a duel and blowing his own brains out, thereby celebrating his own dedication to terror and sending his antagonist into a self-lacerating depression.

This argument is as relevant today as it was when it was written. Settembrini is like the bulk of today’s liberals — well-meaning but incapable of recognizing that the world of their youth has changed beyond recognition. Naphta’s enthusiasm for mixing incompatible faiths that have nothing in common other than their antagonism to liberalism is all too familiar today, too: Thus we have progressives who side with terrorists and evangelical Christians who side with Trump. Our liberalism, like Settembrini’s, only seems to have any energy when it’s driving opponents mad.

In The Magic Mountain, the illiberal madness finally ends with the outbreak of world war. Castorp hears of “a vast murderousness” stirring on the flatlands below and decides to leave the sanitorium — much against the wishes of his leaching doctors — and rejoin history. In the last scene of the novel, he participates in an infantry attack and sings to himself “Der Lindenbaum” from Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise — the great Romantic premonition of Europe’s death wish.

The same sense of “vast murderousness” hangs over the world today. Volodymyr Zelenskiy delivered a speech designed to rally support for Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s aggression. Delegates anxiously discussed events in the Middle East and China’s saber rattling over Taiwan. But there is one optimistic difference between Mann’s novel and today’s Davos. Mann wrote his novel six years after the decadence he analyzed led to one of the greatest slaughters in human history. We still have time — just — to write a better ending to the story.

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