We cant give in to the sense of looming catastrophe, says Dutch author and columnist Arnon Grunberg
On a snowy evening last week, I found myself in the dining room of the Morosani Posthotel in Davos, and when I had finished my meal the waiter started a conversation, probably because most of the tables were already empty. A middle-aged man with a charming smile, he told me that he was from Italy; during the summer he worked in a hotel on the island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples, but the winter season he spent in Davos. When we have the World Economic Forum here, he said, we work day and night. It doesnt stop. And the tips these people leave, its incredible, they have a bill for 2,400 francs and then they tell me, add a tip of 40%, I should be happy, but Im not happy, its insane, its unhealthy.
I left him a tip of 10% who wants to be unhealthy? Besides, my bill was a long way off 2,400 Swiss francs. That night I couldnt get the word unhealthy out of my head, nor the gusto and certitude with which the waiter had uttered it.
Once, Davos was synonymous with Thomas Manns famous novel The Magic Mountain, a sanatorium novel if ever there was one, in which visitors tried not always successfully to make the transformation from unhealthy to healthy, while the rest of Europe was getting sicker and sicker, slowly sliding into the disasters of two world wars. For most of the characters in the book the Swiss Alpine village felt like a place where time had stopped. A month or seven years; in Davos it was all the same.
Nowadays, when musing about Davos, it is more likely that one thinks of the corporate billionaires, politicians and economists who gather here every January. If I understood the waiter correctly, and his view is by no means an exception, Davos is not a place where anyone comes to get better, its a village where the illness is a matter of fact, a reason for decadence even, at least to spend as if theres no tomorrow. For the waiter there was no doubt about it, the hand that fed him was a sick hand.
But there is still a hiking route here called the Thomas-Mann-Weg. And when you leave the village and walk up this trail, you get the feeling that Davos is still a refuge, a place where time has stopped and whereas in Manns novel tuberculosis is the only threat, the real maladies of the world are noticed only by the people reading newspapers. Until reality hits, hard.
Would the waiter have responded the same way if a famous footballer or celebrity had tipped him 40%? I doubt it. Susan Sontag made us aware that illness as metaphor, and seeing the sick as different from us, always as others, is a dangerous trap. But we should also realise that acting as if the system and the powerful are always others is equally dangerous.
Still, one could argue that despite the fact that many people coming to Davos may not have read The Magic Mountain, I would say that many coming here might not even have heard of Thomas Mann Im not a snob, this is not necessarily a judgment the ghost of the novel still hangs over the place, over our world. The sensation of a looming catastrophe that is part of the charm and the suspense of the book is present, indeed it can be felt whenever you tune into the news now. Though you feel it more urgently in Davos, precisely because there is something of a paradise about the place. Isnt it the distinctive feature of paradises that they are doomed?
The German author and journalist, Dirk Kurbjuweit, recently wrote about dying democracies in Der Spiegel. He made clear his view that if the mainstream parties in Germany refuse to rule out cooperation with the extreme-right AfD, it could be a step towards the death of German democracy. After the debacle in the German state of Thuringia, where a politician from the centre-right FDP was elected premier with the help of the AfD (something which was until then taboo), quite a few commentators are pointing to the past. Hadnt Hitler had one of his first successes in Thuringia? Are we living in Weimar again?
Its understandable that Germans are more aware of the fragility of democracies than other people in Europe, and they are indeed right to be concerned. As we all should be. Its far too convenient a belief that certain catastrophes can only come from Germany.
But too often historical comparisons are made frivolously. I remember a couple celebrating New Years Eve in a hotel in Davos telling me: It feels like the Titanic here. The couple didnt really mean that we were all condemned, they were referring to something more erotic. Death was just another game because dying is what other people do; in Davos you can feel invincible, or at least you can cherish the illusion of being invincible.
If the apocalypse is just another erotic tool, a device to provide us with a feeling of being alive (travel too is often a way of looking for controlled danger isnt that the essence of skiing and snowboarding?), there is a risk of our metaphors and warnings becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Comparison with the past should be used to shed new light on whats happening today. The moment it becomes a kneejerk response, it loses all its power and turns into a way of showing which side you are on, while you have the pleasure of disengaging at the same time. The looming catastrophe is simply the most dangerous ski slope, the black diamond, reserved for the most capable.
Im not accusing Kurbjuweit of frivolity, but its good to realise that a significant minority in Europe, east and west, as well as in the United States, appears to view a dying democracy not as a catastrophe but as something to cherish. Finally, we got rid of the bastards, the swamp got drained.
The weaknesses of our liberal democracies are there for all to see. But there is little to gain from constantly stressing these frailties. We are dreaming if we believe that the other side will conclude: If liberal democracy is that weak, we should be more careful. On the contrary, they might think: If liberal democracy is almost falling off the cliff, we will give it a last push. Human beings too often take pleasure in giving a push to things that are close to the edge.
Arnon Grunberg is a Dutch author; his most recent novel is Occupied Territories