Jenny Diski

It’s a bad year for snow in Zermatt. Mont Cervin is mostly bare red rock. Even the Matterhorn has only a frosting of snow. But the pistes are all right: every few hundred yards bright yellow snow-making machines, like small snub-nosed cannon, soak up water from the lakes and shoot it ten metres into the air to do what God can usually be relied on to achieve, and keep what skiers there are on the move. Still, the shopkeepers and hoteliers are not a happy bunch, and there are nothing but shopkeepers and hoteliers in Zermatt. The lights in this tacky twinkletown flitter merrily, gold watches glisten in the jewellers’ windows, but the faces are glum. There is no other point to the place except to enable wealthy folk to slide down the mountain into the shops and bars to spend their crisp Swiss francs. Except, that is, for one long weekend each year when two hundred people gather together in a windowless, air-conditioned hall in the basement of one of the swisher hotels in order to learn how to be creative. The director-generals of Lancôme, Ciba-Geigy, ABB and Nestlé, along with their underling executives, have all paid four thousand or so Swiss francs to discover how to add a mysteriously desirable cache of creativity to their already accumulated, though more concrete, store of wealth and power. Like so many overbred princesses, they still feel the pea, no matter how many feather mattresses they lie on.

The word ‘creativity’ is bandied about over the four days of the sixth International Zermatt Symposium on Creativity in Economics, Arts and Sciences as if it were an abracadabra. Only give us the wand, the hungry hotshots cry, and we’ll be masters of the universe. At one point the super-suits are even prepared to sit manipulating the ends of a metre of rope to learn from a French funambulist how to make a clove hitch knot that unties, if you do it right, as if by magic. They’ve paid their money, and they will acquire, by hook or by hitch, what seems to be missing from their bag of tricks.

The ISO-Foundation for Creativity and Leadership is the brainchild of Swiss-born Dr Gottlieb Guntern, a one-time medical psychiatrist turned systems-theory proselytiser and consultant to the stars of Swiss mega-corporations. He has written books to explain, as he repeatedly does when introducing the speakers, that we have been living and suffering ‘under the sign of the dinosaur’. Only innovative leadership, prepared to break up the dinosaur into a thousand creative butterflies, will enable us to enter the new millennium successfully. ‘Creative leadership renounces trailership, which reacts tactically-defensively where strategic-proactive thinking and acting would be necessary.’ What this means, I can’t say, but the Suits have put their money where Dr Guntern’s mouth is, so they have some inkling of what it’s all about. They, after all, are rulers of the multinational corporate universe. Never mind that the dinosaurs lived successfully for longer than any other species; never mind that it is in the nature of butterflies to flit aimlessly from one brightly coloured flower to the next, to eat, reproduce and die in the blink of the sun; never mind that it was the small, shifty-eyed ratty mammals, our ancestors, who colonised the planet after the dinosaurs died, not from stupidity but from the effects of a fortuitous meteor shower: surely the powerhouses in the darkened hall would not be sitting here tying knots in pieces of string if they weren’t going to get something for the expenditure of their precious time.

The delegates lap up Guntern’s brain physiology talk. ‘There are five brains,’ he keeps saying. The appending of popular biology to the notion of creative leadership gives both a scientific sexiness and a flattering affirmation that this very special audience is ready to learn the secrets of the cosmos. The ‘old brain’ (the cerebellum), the ‘automotive brain’, the ‘emotional brain’ and the two hemispheres of the neo-cortex are Guntern’s components. We do not use the correct part for the right task. Before you know it, we receive the news that the left and right halves of the neo-cortex are the key to everything. Right side equals intuitive, creative; left side is rational and linguistic – and heaven help those of us who are left-handed. Right side good, left side bad. Between the two, the corpus callosum represents, of course, the ‘information superhighway’. This is all neat and apprehendable. All we have to do is use the right side of the brain and creativity will flow. However, it’s been fifteen years or so since the notion of an absolute split between the functions of the hemispheres has been regarded as simplistic nonsense by neurobiologists, and no one would suggest that anything but the merest hints has been understood about the way the brain and its chemistry actually function in the macro world of the individual in daily life. But it’s so attractive to feel in the know brain-wise. Questioned about his theories, Guntern explains to me that, yes, it is true that brain research is in a very uncertain infancy, but we must use whatever tools we can in order to intervene in the disastrous conduct of modern life and to save companies which are dying from lack of creativity. I suggest this is odd from a man so committed to evolutionary theory. Surely extinction of forms which are no longer appropriate is the very mechanism of evolution? ‘Some people, though I know you do not mean it to be so, would find that very cynical.’ I explain that I did somewhat mean it to be cynical, and wonder if it is right to intervene with such poorly understood tools. It is criminal, he tells me severely, not to intervene when you have the ability to improve things. I suspect that the unspoken question ‘What ability?’ is visible in my raised eyebrows. He offers me a quote from Camus, who said that after the age of 45 people are responsible for their faces ‘so if there is an expression of arrogance or contempt, it is because the individual has negative inner attitudes.’ That deals with me apparently.

Apart from creative, innovative, leadership and brain physiology, the other concept that seems to get the corporate juices running is eclecticism. If the chairman of Nestlé is asked to sit and listen for four days to the chairman of ABB, he’s liable to get restless, but ask him to listen to the chairman of ABB, an ‘avant-garde’ high-wire street performer, the woman who concocted Calvin Klein’s Eternity, a Latin American novelist and the American whizzkid who is the current last word in computerised graphic design, and Mr Nestlé is likely to get the feeling that he’s really going to learn something. Naturally, he’s not planning to wire-walk the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, and he probably knows that he’ll never get round to writing that magical realist novel he feels he could if only he had time. But surely he can squeeze the essence from the variety, and find the concentrate that makes all these diverse people entitled to stand on a podium and call themselves that deliciously vague word ‘creative’. Want some? Here’s a whole handful of the stuff. Creativity in Zermatt is about getting extra. None of the speakers suggests that their audience might have to lose something they already have in order to get what they want. On this journey, all you have to do is learn to juggle with disparately shaped objects.

Mario Vargas Llosa turned out to be something of a juggler, and provided a finely balanced introduction to the world of creativity. A novelist who has also entered the sphere of politics; a very public man, neatly suited and at ease on a platform. He begins by explaining that he does not totally understand or control his creativity, and this cheers me up. A straightforward, accurate statement, it seems to me. So can we all go home now? Apparently not as he explains the wellsprings of his creativity – his childhood, his father. I begin to wonder if the role of writers is not to flatter the world into thinking it is a deeper and more interesting place than it really is as he declares that the novel must always be in rebellion against society while going on without pause to relate the story of his intervention on behalf of sense and sanity in the prickly politics of Peru. London intellectuals are besotted with Fidel Castro, he announces, whereas the real political hero is Mr Christiani, a businessman turned politician (as Christ was a woodworker turned messiah) who single-handedly returned Salvador to moderation and democracy. This Ross Perot of the Latin world is an unsung saviour, and the businessmen are delighted to hear that the chaotic political world awaits their intervention.

The self-congratulation reaches a peak with the next speaker. Eberhard von Koerber is the president of ABB Europe, a multinational electrical engineering company presently employing 220,000 people. In his introduction, Dr Guntern shoots out metaphors as from a snow-maker. Von Koerber is a dolphin, leaping and twisting through the air in an orgy of creativity. The business world he encountered was like a tanker propelled by a paddle, in a world which is like a car driver who speeds up and brakes at the same time. I think jazz and dissonant notes came into it somewhere, but by then I was suffering from a distracting vertigo.

He expresses his admiration for Dr Guntern, who, it turns out, is employed as an adviser to ABB, which was in the dire condition of the dinosaur when von Koerber took over. Drastic, innovative action had to be taken, first by sacking 10 per cent of the workforce (downsizing, restructuring, rationalising) who, not realising the creativity of the act, were unconvinced of the long-term benefits (for the company) and chorused their disapproval outside von Koerber’s window. It was, he said, a long and stony path, and very distressing, but he persisted even when his secretary, not used to the music of dissent outside her window, had a heart attack. She left the story there. Von Koerber didn’t say whether she survived. Older staff members were the first to get the sack, as Dr Guntern advised, along with anyone who showed an inability to accept change. This 10 per cent represents 25-30,000 people put out of work, but von Koerber – unlike his secretary – could live with it. Creativity, he told us in a moment of searing honesty, is only a means to an end. Creativity is at the service of profitability. We do not need managers but leaders, authentic leaders like von Koerber, Guntern says, or we will arrive at the 21st century with a 19th-century mentality.

Von Koerber’s story was one of decentralisation, of a company broken up into 5000 ‘profit centres’ responsible to head office as a way of creating local pride and individual responsibility. People, he explained, must be free from anxiety and stress if they are to perform creatively. Actually, this isn’t true, and luckily for the profits of ABB he does not follow his own advice. Head office analyses and compares the profits of each profit centre on a three-monthly basis (internal bench-marking), and if there is any falling short of requirements, hit squads – excuse me, teams from head office – are sent in to ‘intervene and coach’ the offending managers. A German journalist familiar with the practice of decentralising businesses into profit centres explained to me that this had the useful effect of dispersing the power of the unions, making them much easier to deal with.

ABB snapped up ailing businesses in the former GDR, but found, surprisingly, some resentment and resistance from East German workers. Von Koerber planned a visit, but was worried about how to present himself until a friend gave him a strategic tip he ‘hadn’t thought of’. It was that he should appear before the workers ‘as a human being who, though now rich, had not started life with a silver spoon in his mouth.’ His only real advantage, he told them, was that he had come from a more advanced society than they had. This worked a treat, according to our authentic leader.

After that the oddballs of creativity were mere froth on the cocoa. Sophia Chodosz-Grojsman (a.k.a. the Rose) declared America the land of freedom, where anyone could become anything. She became – after what she finally admitted were thirty years of slavery – a master perfumer at International Flavours and Fragrances, New York, and is responsible, some would say culpable, for inventing Trésor and Champagne and for scenting hairsprays and shampoos. She would rather, she said, have used her chemistry degree to find a cure for cancer and Aids.

Phillipe Petit, on the other hand, was genuinely strange. A high-wire walker who is artist in residence at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York, he is described, with a simpering smile from Dr Guntern, as conquistador of the useless. Petit is a tiny, frail man who looks like a haggard Jean-Louis Barrault. He offers magic tricks and his offences against the social norms to the audience, but off-stage there is a grimness in his expression and something in his eyes that reminds my German journalist friend of death. I wonder, during question time, if he doesn’t sometimes experience the temptation to fall. This makes him very angry and he informs me that he is so sure of his technique and dedicated in his practice that there is not the slightest chance of his falling. Given his anger, I do not ask the subsidiary question about why then he doesn’t just walk on the ground.

Paul Scott Makela galvanises and alarms the audience on the final morning with a viewing of the video he designed for Michael Jackson’s ‘Scream’, the song Jackson released after the child abuse allegations fell away. Makela acknowledged that $7.5 million was a substantial amount of money for a five-minute video, but was consoled when Jackson donated $4 million worth of Vitamin E to the malnourished children of Bosnia. Even now, I look at my notes just to check: but, yes, it was Vitamin E.

The company is a bit baffled by Makela’s work. It is all too fast for them. Most of the questions begin ‘Maybe I am too old ...’ But Makela’s whizzkid status is nonetheless admired, not least by Makela himself who repeatedly refers to himself as ‘very young’, though at 36 this sounds more like a plea to the gods than a description. His ‘valve’ of creativity lies between ‘fleeting thoughts where the non-linguistic and non-judgmental lie... simple wakefulness and ultimate abandon’. This might be too simple for the gathering who are now getting ready to return to real office life where ultimate abandon may not be easy to come by. Still, over the final coffee a man from Ciba-Geigy (‘I am a kind of writer. I write ideas in my office and then send them out to be implemented’) feels he has had a thrilling and rare experience. Where else, he asks, can you hear so many different kinds of people talking? Where else could one think about the creative connections between economics, arts and science? He looks suspiciously at me when I suggest a critical, ‘wakeful’ evening in front of the telly might do the trick.

I arrive home to two not irrelevant pieces of information. There is a report in the Guardian that Apple Macintosh is in dire trouble, and that all the desperate innovation of the past few years has failed to give them a survivable share of the computer market, despite having by far the most creatively user-friendly product. Dr Guntern mentioned Apple several times during our long weekend as a lesson in the revival of flagging corporate thinking. Then I phone a friend of mine who, when I ask what he’s up to, tells me he is about to spend the next few weeks, or maybe months, scratching his balls. He means, I immediately understand, that he is starting to write his next novel.