High and mighty

Marcel Proust once complained of suffering a malaise after travelling from Paris to Versailles. He attributed this to the change in altitude, Versailles being all of 83 metres higher than Paris. Lucky for Proust, then, that he lived many decades before the advent of the World Economic Forum.

Were the hypochondriac novelist alive today and keen to join his fellow intellectuals in the alpine hideaway of Davos in order to put the world to rights, he would have to ascend to a vertiginous 1,560 metres for the pleasure. Should that prove intolerable to him, they could, at a pinch, slash the attendance list and hold the whole thing in Marcel’s cork-lined bedroom in Paris.

But at a feeble 32 metres above sea level, could Paris ever be Davos? That is to say, if the World Economic Forum were to be held in Paris, would it still be the World Economic Forum? The answer is, surely, “No.” The WEF - whose 2007 session concludes this Sunday - has joined that rare class of events that have become synonymous with their venue, like Yalta, or Vietnam. The hopelessly low-lying, ocean-lapped New York hosted the event in 2002 but that was strictly a one-off, prompted by a bit of post-9/11 solidarity. There is no doubt: Davos means Davos. And what Davos has is height.

If you can’t supplant Davos, you can imitate it. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City emerges once a year from its anonymity to host a symposium at Jackson Hole ski resort in Wyoming - at a dizzying 3,185 metres - where all the people who go to Davos gather to discuss the same topics and make the same, almost-memorable pronouncements, but on a different mountain.

What is it with the altitude thing? It can’t be the downhill action. I think it unlikely that Angela Merkel is out there laying down new lines on her snowboard or that Kofi Annan relaxes after a session on the future of global digital rights management by shredding a little powder. Which is probably wise. The last statesman I saw taking to the slopes was John Kerry - US senator and Davos Man par excellence - who, a few years ago in Idaho, did little for his standing among American voters by falling off his snowboard and blaming it on a bodyguard.

We can excuse Senator Kerry. Mountains have often been associated with questionable behaviour, usually of a much greater enormity. On the lonely summit, pride, power-lust, the drive for supremacy find room to breathe. Dr Frankenstein strives dementedly to create life in a solitary, storm-battered castle; Hitler plots megalomaniacally from his Berchtesgaden redoubt, high in the Bavarian Alps; Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (”I love not the plains”) wanders broodingly from peak to peak before descending to present the lowland masses with the concept of the Superman.

Yet the will to power is hardly the spirit in which Davos is conducted. If anything, the whole affair evinces a sort of painstaking collective reasonableness.

“Everyone is equal which really allows just about anyone to approach anyone else,” the WEF says on its website. These are not the bickering Homerian gods of Mount Olympus. These are businessmen (mostly) who, with what we are implicitly invited to regard as noble self-restraint, have checked their legendary egos at the door and come together to discover common ground. “Initiatives” are developed, “agendas” shaped.

The immensity of these aerial summits,” wrote Shelley on first catching sight of the Alps in 1816, “excited a sentiment of ecstatic wonder, not unallied to madness.” How he would have enjoyed the workshop on “Convergence and the Customer” or the colloquium on “Empowering Local Business”. But such stuff emanates from conference centres and boardrooms up and down the land. Why bother going all the way to Davos if nothing that happens there appears to draw, for better or for worse, from its extraordinary location? The WEF claims that “holding the meeting in such a setting rather than a bustling metropolis allows attendees to focus more easily on the issues at hand”. But there would appear to be little danger of indiscipline breaking out among the earnest wonkery.

However vapid the Davos talk, it appears to gain substance simply by being said at Davos and not in, say, Chelmsford or Columbus, Ohio. Roland Barthes, in his essay on the semiotics of the guidebook, notes that, since the 19th century, bourgeois taste has preferred the mountainous to the flat landscape. To the middle classes, verticality connotes the essential Victorian values of striving and self-reliance - “summit-climbing as civic virtue”. Thus the landscape is a kind of shorthand, a labour-saving device. Just by being in it, one can appropriate its rectitude.

No need to say anything visionary, or even meaningful, at the World Economic Forum - Davos, or “Davos”, will handle that for you. Among the Olympian peaks, virgin snow and rarified air of the Alps, even the flattest statement acquires the purity, the clarity of vision, the soaring moral uplift that the mountains provide. At Davos it becomes - in a sense far more elevated than the merely literal - a pronouncement from on high.

Ed Holland is an editor in the FT’s New York office.

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