January 29, 2013

"The door that I pushed open, on the advice of an elevator boy, was marked 'The Swastika Holding Company,' and at first there didn’t seem to be any one inside."

What? Why is there a Swastika Holding Company in "The Great Gatsby" — which takes place in 1922 and was published in 1925? It's simply bizarre. What did a swastika mean then? Why did F. Scott Fitzgerald put that name on a door that was pushed open on the advice of an elevator boy only to reveal the seeming absence of anyone?

That's our "Gatsby" sentence today in the "Gatsby" project where each day we look at one sentence in isolation. Here, we are left to wonder. Or check Wikipedia. Swastikas go way back:

The earliest swastika known has been found from Mezine, Ukraine. It is carved on late paleolithic figurine of mammoth ivory, being dated as early as about 10,000 BC....

In India, Bronze Age swastika symbols were found at Lothal and Harappa, Pakistan on Indus Valley seals. In England, neolithic or Bronze Age stone carvings of the symbol have been found on Ilkley Moor....
Etc. etc. etc. Spin forward. What was up with the soon-to-be-abjured symbol in the early 20th century?



Caption: "The aviatrix Matilde Moisant (1878-1964) wearing a swastika medallion in 1912; the symbol was popular as a good luck charm with early aviators."

Googling around, I found this year 2000 Vanity Fair article about "The Great Gatsby" written by Christopher Hitchens:
References to Jews and the upwardly mobile are consistently disobliging in the book... but it gives one quite a turn to find Meyer Wolfshiem, he with molars for cuff links, hidden Shylock-like behind the address of “The Swastika Holding Company.” Pure coincidence: the symbol meant nothing sinister at the time. Still, you can get the sensation, from The Great Gatsby, that the 20th century is not going to be a feast of reason and a flow of soul.
A feast of reason and a flow of soul. Oh! But I want this blog to be a feast of reason and a flow of soul. And I'm drifting away from my purpose: the sentence, in glorious isolation. How can we beat that swastika back into the stark confines of the sentence? The elevator arrives, we step out, we find a door, the door is marked, and there doesn't seem to be anyone — any one — inside.

At first!

62 comments:

edutcher said...

It was a good luck symbol around the world. My aunt, whose husband's family had been missionaries in China, had several items adorned with haakenkreuzen.

It was also the original shoulder patch of the 45th Infantry Division.

Maguro said...

The Boston Braves sometimes wore special swastika caps during the 1914 season.

Chip Ahoy said...

It was a company that didn't produce anything, just own stock in other companies, so there was little to see.

Swastika because the original companies owned were all various pinwheel companies. The first few companies made plastic pinwheels of various kinds, some of wood, some manufactured whirligigs. For logo and letterhead and such, various swastikas with dots and so forth were always popular designs, mostly due to the ease of incorporating the design into woven textiles.

virgil xenophon said...

edutcher beat me to the punch. The 45th Patch had the swastika facing the oppo way as the Nazi's however, reflecting the American Indian sign of good luck. The 45th retained the original Division colors of red& gold when they switched to the Thunderbird at onset of WWII to avoid Nazi comparison, yet keep Indian heritage connection to area where the Div was formed..

John said...

Te 45th infantry (US) used the swastika along with the Lafayette Espadrille and the Boeing P-36 (pea shooter) pursuit plane.

The 45th adopted to honor SW Indian tribes.

pm317 said...

Damn Hitler and the Nazis. This was the ultimate theft of intellectual property -- using something from Jainism and Buddhism, (which both preach non-violence) as symbol of their atrocities is unforgivable. But conscience is not for dictators.

mccullough said...

I wish there were still elevator boys. And washroom attendants. Those were the days.

EMD said...

I wish there were still elevator boys. And washroom attendants. Those were the days.

Racist!

EMD said...

Damn Hitler and the Nazis. This was the ultimate theft of intellectual property -- using something from Jainism and Buddhism, (which both preach non-violence) as symbol of their atrocities is unforgivable. But conscience is not for dictators.

Yeah, it really sucks that they had such great design sensibilities, too.

edutcher said...

Dolf adopted the swastika from the Ostara Society which pushed the whole Aryan thing before the NSDAP was formed.

It was intended to represent the sun.

David Davenport said...

Wonder why Prof. Oldhouse hasn't mentioned the Meyer Wolfsheim character in Great G.?

The verbal picture Scotty F. paints of Wolfsheim is quite unflattering. Wolfsheim wears cufflinks made of human teeth. ... Very un-pee-cee by today's standards. Wolfsheim based on real life personage who rigged 1919 World Series.

According to intro. to Gatsby that I read, Fitzgerald wrote the novel in Venice during the summer of 1924 ( Italy, not the Venice section of L.A. ), so Fitz. probably not attuned to National Zocialist German Worker's Partei.

MBR said...

Oh COME ON, Althouse old girl! Come to my house and you will find beautifully embroidered gold cloth swastikas hung over the front door. Coz we're Hindus!

"In Sanskrit, the proper spelling of the word swastika is svastika. Sanskrit has no 'w'. Literally, the word svastika is a statement of affirmation, "It is!" "Life is good!" "There is value" "There is meaning!" (Devasthanam - A Hindu Resource where Faith and Scholarship Meet).

By 1922 Eastern Mysticism was already huge in the United States ... the Swastika Holding Company - "There is Value"!

Ann Althouse said...

ANDRE: Well. Around that time, I was beginning to think about going to India. And Kozan suddenly left one day. And you know, I was beginning to get into a lot of very strange ideas around that time. Now, for example, I had developed this...well, I got this idea which I...well, it was very appealing to me at the time, you know, which was that I would have a flag, a large flag, and that wherever I worked this flag would fly, or if we were outside, say, with a group, that the flag could be the thing that we'd lay on at night, and that somehow between working on this flag and lying on this flag, this flag flying over us, that the flag would pick up vibrations of a kind that would still be in the flag when I brought it home? So, I went down to meet this flag maker that I'd heard about, and you know, there was this very straight-forward looking guy, you know, a very sweet and really healthy-looking and everything, nice, big, blond; you know, he had a beautiful clean loft down in the village with lovely, happy flags. And I was all into The Little Prince and I talked to him about the Little Prince and his adventures and everything, how I needed the flag and what the flag should be, and he seemed to really connect with it. So, two weeks later I came back: he showed me a flag that I thought was very odd, you know, 'cause I'd...well, you know, I'd expected something gentle, and lyrical. There was something about this that was so powerful, it was almost overwhelming! And it did include the Tibetan swastika.

WALLY: [Swallows abruptly.] He put a swastika in your flag?!

ANDRE: It was the Tibetan swastika, not the Nazi swastika. It's one of the most ancient Tibetan symbols. And it was just strange, you know. But, I brought it home, because my idea with this flag was that before I left, you know, before I left for India, I wanted several people who were close to me to have this flag in the room for the night, to sleep with it, you know, and then in the morning to sew something into the flag. So I took the flag in to Marina, and I said: "Hey, look at this. What do you think of this?" And she said: "What is that? That's awful!" And I said: "It's a flag!" And she said: "I don't like it!," you know. And I said: "Oh, well, I kinda thought you might like to spend the night with it," you know. But she really thought the flag was awful. So, then, Chiquita threw this party for me, before I left for India, and the apartment was filled with guests, and at one point Chiquita said: "The flag! The flag! Where's the flag?" And I said: "Oh, yeah, the flag!" And I go and get the flag and I open it up. Chiquita goes absolutely white and runs out of the room and vomits! So the party just comes to a halt and breaks up! And then the next day, I gave it to this young woman who had been in my group in Poland, who was now in New York. I didn't tell her anything about any of this. At five o'clock in the morning she called me up and she said: "I gotta come and see you right away!" And I thought: "Oh, God!" She came up and she said: "I saw things! I saw things around this flag! Now I know you're stubborn and I know you want to take this thing with you, but if you'd follow my advice you'd put it in a hole in the ground and burn it and cover it with earth 'cause the Devil's in it!" Well, I never took the flag with me! In fact, I gave it to her, and she had a ceremony with it six months later in France, with some friends, in which they did burn it.

WALLY: Hunh! God! That's really, really amazing! So did you ever go to India?

Astro said...

I've long suspected a connection between Astronomy and the swastika symbol. If you sketch the position of the Little Dipper at the 4 cardinal points of the year (Spring, Summer...) the drawing you get is of a swastika.

Even going back 5000 years or more, long before Polaris (the last star in the handle) was the 'Pole Star' the constellation itself retained its shape and would yield the shape of a swastika when sketched as I mentioned above.

Our ancient ancestors didn't have the light pollution we have now and they were much more aware of the night sky, so it's very likely they would have noticed this.

bagoh20 said...

"The swastika literally means "to be good". ~ Wikipedia

Hey Nazis! That's what's known as a "Fail".

chickelit said...

F. Scott Fitzgerald, was often heard leading bar patrons in countless rounds of Swig Heil!

traditionalguy said...

The 1919 Munich Putsch was done under the first swastika flag flown by the original Nazi party. They took its design from mystical Runic studies thought to be pure from influence from later Judeo-Christian alphabets.

All SS flags thereafter had to be touched to that first sacred, blood soaked Nazi Swastika Flag.

Fitzgerald could have read about the Munich Putsch in 1919 which happened four years before he wrote his word perfect social criticisms.

Henry Ford had written and widely distributed The International Jew in 1920 through 1922. Ford was Hitler's favorite author. Fitzgerald could easily have read or heard orally about Ford's slander stating a connection of Jews and Business and thus become attracted to the Nazi Putsch leader's occult symbol as an antisemitic facet of the New York society of his day. He wrote Tom Buchanan's character as a Teutonic race theorist protecting the White race.

pm317 said...

Ann Althouse said...
-----------------

see what I mean? Evil appropriated the benevolent symbol and now all ignorant people know is just what the evil guys did with it.

Lem said...

Look at that small waist on her...

CEO-MMP said...

Anyone who has to go to wikipedia to know the swastika had a long history before 'dolf fell in love with it (and twisted it, btw)...well, they're about right to be hot for Fitzgerald and his pathetic scribbling I guess.

The Godfather said...

Intellectualizing about symbols is all well and good, but let's not forget the absolute evil that the symbol came to represent.

chickelit said...

Look at that small waist on her...

WASP waist?

Lem said...

I looked up the 'one door closes' quote and I found, apparently, that there was more to it.

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us. said Alexander Graham Bell (I say apparently because its the internet)

I was not aware of the second part until I opened the door and looked inside... yikes this is so lame... but its too late.

I feel like I said this before... have I said this before... I dont want to open that door.

What if I did say it before?

Its not like anybody notices what I'm going on and on about.

Yea, but I know that I know.

and so it goes. that was a closing line of a lady with glasses on the television. I think she got cancer and died.

Lem said...

WASP?

David Davenport said...

Intellectualizing about symbols is all well and good, but let's not forget the absolute evil that the symbol came to represent.

Thank you.

Without your reminder, how could we less sensitive -- and sancti-moan-i-ous -- folk keep our moral compasses properly oriented.

southcentralpa said...

It's like people in the late 30s and early 40s who had their social security number tattooed on their arm (yes, really). Back then, it didn't seem quite so creepy...

pm317 said...

Anyone who has to go to wikipedia to know the swastika had a long history before 'dolf fell in love with it

---------

Yeah, I was surprised by her ignorance too.. But she does not seem to have a lot of curiosity for things outside the US..

betamax3000 said...

Swastikas but no cows.

I developed a Midwestern take (thanks to Meade's cow idyll) involving the humble Post-Modern Midwestern cow and how its viewpoint observes and amplifies Gatsby's self-involved world and -- now -- its swastikas?

I understand Ann not rolling with the snow globe, but: swastikas?

I was all set for a good thirty posts: sigh.





chickelit said...

Lem, that's not a wasp waist--that's another name for pirate treasure.

junyo said...

The Allentown PA main post office has several embedded in the tile floor (circa 1934). They removed some of the bigger ones after WWII, but lots of small ones still there, and every year someone new sees them and freaks out.

Cedarford said...

It (the swastika) is a symbol that powerful and wealthy Western Elites thought they could eliminate.
As they domesticated the 3rd world to a liberal, western-oriented welfare state.
Where things would be ordered well by the Democratic UN. And the Hero Democracies and the Evil Soviets would fight to see who could better humanity best.

Hasn't worked out well on most counts in the last 70 years, as the 3rd World has pretty much given the Hero Democracies and the Evil Soviets the 3rd Finger.


It is inevitable that the 3rd Finger will also soon be up-raised about the "moral duty" the whole world has to abandon 3,000 years of use of the swastika in Europe, India, Tibet, the Navajo and Japanese usage, and as an an architectural element in multiple civilizations.

All because some muttonheads thought that they could use "guilt" over one brief cultures use of the swasika to end it forever.

As the trends of history go, 12 years of misappropriation by Germany is an eyeblink. And 70 years of expatiation of some "guilt" by lands that have always had the swastika symbol - to demand they treat it as taboo - seems far to long already.



Emil Blatz said...

I lived in Savannah, GA for a time, over a decade ago. The 8th Army Air Force museum ("Mighty Eighth Museum") is there, actually in beautiful, nearby Pooler, GA. I made my first visit there in early 2001 and was just knocked out. It has been enlarged and improved since then. I mentioned this first visit to some of my colleagues while on a business trip and one of the Jewish fellows in the group tuned to me and told me how offended he was that there was a captured German flag, with a swastika on it, on display in the museum. It was one of only several instances of swastikas among what was then a several hundred thousand square foot display area, with tens of thousands of artifacts. I commented that it was just what it appeared to be - loot taken by victorious American soldiers and a true artifact of the war, on display simply to show something that had, at some point (1940?) been omnipresent across Europe. I had to give up on this because his interpretation would not listen to any reason. He felt that you could, in fact should, remove Swastikas from history museums. Whaddaya gonna do?

kentuckyliz said...

I watched PBS American Experience: Henry Ford this evening. Very interesting.

Cedarford said...

The Godfather said...
Intellectualizing about symbols is all well and good, but let's not forget the absolute evil that the symbol came to represent.

=============
To a very small but wealthy and powerful part of humanity that sought to impose their will and make it's use in land that had nothing to do with WWII's symbol use by Germany.
The rest of the world had it for 3,000 years and will reclaim it..probably soon..

1. As the last living memories of WWII die out.
2. As a Russia and Europe now feeling under growing attack by Muslims and other forces of the 3rd World return to not being ashamed about being white and Western and reclaim their cultural heritage.
3. As the 3rd World itself, resentful of sanctimonious Western Elites telling them what rights they must have, what they must give up of teir own cultures and what they can and cannot have in the way of culture - tell the Western Elites to fuck off.

Lem said...

Thanks chickelit.

Sorry for putting you in the awkward position of having to reveal the contents of a well concealed reference.

bagoh20 said...

"see what I mean? Evil appropriated the benevolent symbol and now all ignorant people know is just what the evil guys did with it."

This exactly what happened to fanny packs and mullets, which I love too.

You got to admit that the swastika is a cool symbol, two bent lines and so much meaning, and yet it's something a toddler might make as his first piece of art. One of a kind.

Fuckin' Nazis could ruin anything. How many times does someone ever say: "Hey, lets invite some Nazis." Once, tops.

Terry said...

Geez, people. It was 1922. It's a metaphor for the Crucifix, or maybe a broken crucifix.

Lem said...

I dont remember who said it but... it goes something like this...

If the nazis never existed we would have had to invent them... or something close to that.

And when you think about it... using the devil or satan for example just does not do quite as well as the Nazis. The pushing of God aside has also something to do with it. (of course)

But it goes to some kind of general conclusion I've come to... over time... That being that everything that went on before happened out of some necessity that may or may not be known or revealed to us now because either nobody was looking or we just forgot.

Or... Judging is hard specially when missing the whole picture.

And thats why the Nazis are so... handy as a quick reference of evil.

Not only were their acts monstrously evil, their monstrous evil acts gave us the missing permission to judge not only them but anything we might monstrously evil.

If I sound like I'm thanking the Nazis... is because... we have a nasty habit of throwing that insult all too often. imho.

rcpjr said...

There is a similar symbol known as "fylfot" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fylfot) although that has the arms of the cross bent counter-clockwise. When I lived in Sydney a while back the city renovated the Customs House building at Circular Quay and they kept the original flooring in tact that is covered with fylfot. I'm told Customs House was the main entry point for goods and people coming to Oz in the mid to late 1800s and the fylfot cross was considered a welcoming sign. They ended up having to put up signs explaining the symbol but they still receive lots of complaints anyway.

chickelit said...

if I sound like I'm thanking the Nazis... is because... we have a nasty habit of throwing that insult all too often. imho.

Two bad things about equating Nazi's with evil in the modern age are:

(1) that evil was somehow vanquished in 1945; and
(2) that only "right wingers" are Nazi and thus "evil"; this why we should insist on revisiting Stalin's and Mao's atrocities as earnestly.

chickelit said...

Sorry for putting you in the awkward position of having to reveal the contents of a well concealed reference.

Hidden in plain cite!

bagoh20 said...

That's another bummer. After the loss of the fanny pack, the mullet, and the swastika, now we can't even use the Nazi or Hitler reference, because "nana nana it's Godwin's law". Well to hell with that. It fits really well in a lot of cases, especially when comparing the new socialists to the old ones. People will forget the most important things if you don't remind them.

Penny said...

"And thats why the Nazis are so... handy as a quick reference of evil."

Yet not as handy as that "evil" American Capitalism in 2013.

Lem said...

Hidden in plain cite!

Chip would know how to write this.

Auntie Ann said...

My high school in Shorewood WI had decorative tiles in the old gym building with lots of swastikas, the building was built in 1923. In 1991, after a donor offered money to have them removed, the school board agreed. ( http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1368&dat=19911212&id=Hk4xAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5hIEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2348,2671141 )

Nichevo said...

C4...omg, why do I bother...C4, are you suggesting that "Western elites" had some eternal reason to remove the 3000 year old symbol, and seized upon the Nazi interlude as a convenient excuse?

C4, contrary to the guy in Airplane, maybe this would be the right week for you to stop sniffing glue. This is not an ad hominem insult. You have been posting crazy lately, as in drunk, stoned, don't know a hawk from a handsaw. You don't have to trust the Yid, take a vote. Who here thinks Cedarford is a little wackier than usual lately?

chickelit said...

Hit Me!

Lem said...

You remember when Johnny Carson told a weak joke the drummer would do a roll signaling something.

The new guys stopped doing that... at least up to the point when I was watching.

Lem said...

Salient points btw @11:45

Its not everyday I think about the Nazis.

Lem said...

oh b4 I forget..

I heard a great line on the Abbeys today. I watched the first season in a couple of days.

from episode 6.

"If everything in the garden is sunny why meddle?"

Chip S. said...

Things ruined by hitler:

• the swastika

• the toothbrush stache

• naming your kid "adolf"

But not this.

Go figure.

Saint Croix said...

Manji, which is awesome, has a backwards swastika. And lesbians, too!

Surfed said...

Via Pepperdine Univ at Malibu - The Swastika Surfboard from the 1930's.

http://pepperdine.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p271401coll8/id/62

AllenS said...

I remember seeing swastikas in Viet Nam. Usually in windows. A Google search, gave me this:

The Religions of Vietnam

To Americans the swastika is the symbol of the worst man can do to man. But to many Vietnamese a similar sign is one of the most sacred of religious symbols.
So simple and yet so great can be misunderstandings between Americans and Vietnamese unless we as visitors seek to know more about the people among whom we live, work and fight.

MACV Office of Information APO 96222
Command Information Pamphlet 11-67
April 1968


EMD said...

So I'm going to be the first one to bring up the Denver International Airport?

creeley23 said...

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss, as Althouse and Hitchens do, the Gatsby swastika as unrelated to the Nazi swastika.

As tradionalguy points out, the Nazi Party was already flying the swastika flag at the 1919 Munich Putsch.

Antisemitism and race theory were epidemic in 1920s Europe, including among the intellegentsia. Note Hemingway's terrible treatment of the Robert Cohn character in The Sun Also Rises written within a few years of Gatsby. Or the routine antisemitism in Eliot's and Pound's poetry.

No, I don't think the Swastika Holding Company was a stray coincidece at all. It was more of Fitzgerald's heavyhanded allusiveness like the "eyes" billboard. Fitzgeald intended Gatsby as serious social commentary of his time.

The main defect of the Gatsby Project is that it drains the meaning out of Fitzgerald's sentences. And in this case, Ann actively discourages any such consideration beyond the glory of a sentence that only happens to contain "swastika" as a word.

Terry said...

creeley23-

When I took 20th century lit., we read Gatsby and The Waste Land at the same time. It was clear to me then (and it still seems clear now) that in both works the great theme is the absence of God. The door marked with a broken cross, and inside, not emptiness, but the (seeming) absence of any one. A person was expected to be there, and (at least at first), it appeared that no one was there.

Rabel said...

Munich Putsch = Beer Hall Putsch = 1923.

Not 1919.

creeley23 said...

Rabel: Point taken. I took traditionalguy's word on that.

In any event the Nazi swastika was adopted in 1920. Fitzgerald turned in the last revisions to Gatsby in February, 1925. It is certainly possible Fitzgerald had seen a Nazi swastika before he finished Gatsby.

creeley23 said...

Terry: The question of God is a question in Gatsby -- those billboard eyes tell us that much -- though I am unconvinced that the absence of God is the great theme in Gatsby.

Fitzgerald was raised Catholic and that does indeed mark a person. But Fitzgerald was not Eliot and I don't see concern about God or God's absence in Gatsby, Tender Is the Night or The Beautiful and the Damned. In those novels Fitzgerald, it seems to me, strives to make big modernist statements about 20th century society, which includes the loss of faith, but is hardly limited to that.

I read Gatsby as I read Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: as the story of people living at a time when society's foundations are shaking.

However, I like how well your interpretation works for the Swastika elevator. Maybe so.

traditionalguy said...

The Nazi's ongoing public clashes with crowds of Marxists started in 1919, but the Swastika Flag of a black rune on a white circle surrounded by a red flag was not adopted until the summer of 1920.

Sorry for mis-dating the putsch by a bad memory.

Alex Pearl said...

I have just finished reading this wonderful novel and the same thought regarding the Swastika Holding Company crossed my mind. It does seem a little strange that Fitzgerald should choose the symbol adopted by the Nazis as the logo for Meyer Wolfshein's company. He obviously couldn't have known the significance of the swastika back in 1925.