Davos in Switzerland is one of the cities lucky – or unfortunate- enough to be canonized by a 20th-century classic of intellectual and cultural crisis. Thanks to The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann put Davos on the map alongside James Joyce’s Dublin, T.S. Eliot’s London, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg and Franz Kafka’s Prague as one of the capital cities of early modernism, and helped its transition from a 19th-century health spa for tuberculosis patients to its modern status as a mecca for high-level [pun intended] intellectual, political, and economic debate. At a conference there last week, I had a chance to touch base with this legacy and see how much of it survives after decades of World Economic Forum ballyhoo.
Mann originally began his masterpiece in 1912 while his wife was being treated for catarrh on the apex of the lungs at the Waldsanatorium in Davos, which still survives as the Waldhotel Davos, although the Hotel Schatzalp, mentioned by name in the novel, is the preferred venue for Magic Mountain devotees. A so-called Thomas-Mann-Way has been established through Davos and the Schatzalp area to commemorate the book, and “along the 2.6 km path are ten signs, which act as ‘literary stations’ and provide information on the connections between Davos and the works of Thomas Mann.”
Mann is not the only writer or savant associated with Davos. Another invalid, Robert Louis Stevenson, completed Treasure Island while staying in the town in 1881-82. Davos was the venue for the celebrated “Davos colloquium” between the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Ernst Cassirer in the spring of 1929, one product of a short-lived series of conferences intended to diversify Davos away from its medical associations into “hygiene in the sphere of the mind,” in the words of Albert Einstein, who lectured there on relativity in 1928. And German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner became a permanent resident after retreating there for health problems, leading eventually to the foundation of the Kirchner Museum Davos.
But as this lineup suggests, Davos owes its creative links to its sanatoria and health spas, born of the scourge of tuberculosis, the so-called mal du siècle, which by the mid-19th century, thanks to Industrial Revolution conditions, caused up to one in four of all deaths in some locations. Hardly surprising that Thomas Mann eventually made it the ideal master metaphor for a sick civilization.