E4 Commentary: Playing with Fire

(Thanks to personal friend Ben Ginsburg for his second pair of eyes on this week’s article. Check out his website, AngelFools!)

In E4: Touchdown Jay arrives in Sheridan. The loud man from the plane keeps up the volume waiting in customs, interrupting Jay’s conversation with two well-traveled Chinese-speakers. The loud man, in his dark sunglasses and Hawaiian shirt, notices their Chinese Atlas uses swastikas to represent temples. The decision to include swastikas in Akayama DanJay was not made lightly. Let’s look at how I try to treat controversial imagery with tact to emphasize my theme. (And if you don’t like how I handled it, tell me in the comments.)

First, a little history from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The swastika is at least 5,000 years old, dating back to the invention of writing itself. The word ‘swastika’ stems from Sanskrit, and the image was a mainstay of symbolism in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Odinism (the religion of the ancient Norse). The symbol was common throughout pre-Christian Europe.

In the late 1800’s archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann noticed the symbol in the ancient city of Troy, near modern Turkey. He compared it to similar markings on German pottery, and thus was found an icon for German ultra-nationalism. It was swept up by the Nazi party, who believed Germans were the descendants of the Aryans.

(In the time between the swastika’s rediscovery and its use by the Nazis, the symbol enjoyed some mainstream use as a good luck charm. The French Lafayette Escadrille used one in the insignia for their WWI flight squad.)

The USHMM ends their brief history by noting that “despite its origins, the swastika has become so widely associated with Nazi Germany that contemporary uses frequently incite controversy.” As a symbol for the atrocities committed by one of Earth’s most legendarily cruel regimes, the swastika is undoubtedly a topic which might turn away some readers. Even mentioning it in Akayama DanJay might make the story taboo in Germany, where displaying the swastika is illegal. (Allowances are made for education and satire of the Nazis, but in general such imagery is taken quite seriously.)

So you can understand why I was caught off-guard by this temple for toddlers in Japan:

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In recent years Japan has started to limit the number of swastikas in public places, particularly on maps where unknowing tourists might take offense. I knew the symbol, and I’d seen it on maps before, but I’d never seen it displayed so prominently and so near Tokyo. It left me shaken, and amused by my shaking. The cartoon characters between the swastikas produced a cognitive dissonance which made me reconsider the psychological foundations of symbols and meaning.

In Akayama DanJay, the loud man with sunglasses asks the Chinese-speaking tourists why there are swastikas in their Atlas. They give several traditional answers. The man—whom we will learn is named Henry—turns to his wife and tries to press one of their points onto her. She ignores him, and Jay takes the first opportunity to leave.

By comparing how multiple characters interpret the symbol, and how they try to explain it to others, I hope to use the swastika appropriately to express an idea. On one side of the spectrum is the Chinese couple with the Atlas. Li Ying doesn’t even realize that a cultural miscommunication has taken place when Henry observes the swastikas. Zhang realizes and tries to clarify the use of the symbol. Jay, sitting literally and culturally between the groups, immediately sucks air through his teeth. He sees to the heart of the situation right away, beyond even Zhang’s understanding. Jay knows Henry is feigning ignorance about the swastika for some personal reason. Henry is quite quick to defend the symbol to his wife, who ignores him like she’s heard it a hundred times before.

The Chinese couple clearly represent the old, traditional understanding of the swastika, while Henry represents the modern bastardization eclipsing tradition. What else do we know about Henry? We’ve actually known him since B2: he’s the student in dark sunglasses, and the boy who sold Faith a cricket. In his first spoken line he tells his teacher he could make money selling crickets because they “get you high as balls.” By D3, now in his late twenties, he’s become the kind of person we’ve all had to sit next to on an airplane whose obnoxiousness made the flight feel twice the length. He dismisses his wife with the phrase “Chicks, am I right?” and seems creepily interested when Jay mentions drugs. He says “guys like us, gotta stick together,” presumably referring to those drugs. And in this section, he’s awfully amused by swastikas.

Henry represents the recent swell of the ultra-toxic alt-right in American politics. He’s not yet totally revealed his alignment to that group, but such people seldom do except in mobs. I’m not talking about Republicans, or conservatives, or even Libertarians (in general, at least): I’m talking about edge-lords who balk at such conventional company and invent trendy, fashionable titles to disguise their scorn for human decency and hatred of diversity. (EDIT: I wrote this before the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, but it shows the cultural timeliness of Henry as a character. )

Henry is a misogynistic drug-dealer who doesn’t know when to shut up. He is enamored by the swastika as a symbol of Nazism, and anything he could learn about the symbol’s humble history would only make him more proud to be a Neo-Nazi. He probably brought up the swastika just to make people uncomfortable. Call him a straw-man if you like, but I’d call him a caricature. He’s an effigy, an object made to be sacrificed.

In Dante’s Inferno, Dante meets real-life political figures from Florence. Through their conversations Dante scathingly criticizes them, their parties, and their religious beliefs. Dante uses this to present his views on contemporary political drama. He even meets someone who was still alive in real life at the time of writing, claiming their sin was so heinous a demon took over their mortal form and their soul was dragged to hell before they died.

Although I’m trying to avoid naming real-world figures, you can’t write an Inferno allegory without punishing at least one sinner. Just as Dante criticized ancient Italian politics, so must I tear into today’s. At least I’ve had the courtesy to limit myself to one amalgamated straw-man instead of pointing fingers.

So, while Jay and the Chinese couple understand the multifaceted meaning of the swastika as a symbol which must be handled carefully depending on the circumstance, Henry is proud to see the swastika in this ‘appropriate’ context because it validates a symbol he venerates in other contexts. He immediately tells his wife Eva how popular the symbol is, but she keeps reading to their daughter. Eva has undoubtedly heard him prattle on about politics for years, and she’s decided to inoculate her daughter with literacy.

How does Jay react to the situation? When Henry first points out the swastika, he inhales sharply through his teeth. It’s like he’s reacting alongside the reader as I play with fire: “Is this really the direction we’re going?” He says nothing during the discussion and leaves as soon as he is able. Remember, in the last section, Jay put on headphones and hummed to avoid talking to Henry. How long can he keep up this isolationism, this appeasement?

Not so long, if his dream sequence in the last section is to be believed. In his dream, Jay began at rest atop a dune. Rather than descend either side, he ran away along its crest. But doing so caused the dune to collapse.

In this section, Jay found himself caught between the Chinese couple and Henry, and chose to abscond when the conversation turned for the worse. Now the world must collapse around him, leading to metaphorical free-fall.

In his dream, how did Jay escape this situation? By realizing he was dreaming, of course. To resolve the perceived issue of choosing between the two interpretations of the swastika, Jay must mentally free himself from the epistemological chains binding meaning to symbols. Then no force will hold power over him, and he will change the game.

In terms of overall theme, this should remind readers that the Nazis were not horrible because they appropriated the swastika. They were horrible because they committed atrocities. However, Henry’s feigned ignorance of the swastika reflects poorly on him. To Jay, who sees through that feigned ignorance, the tactic makes Henry appear immature, insufferable, and maybe dangerous. In this manner, we see the value of symbols despite the subjectivity of the meanings attributed to them: as humans, we choose which symbols to associate ourselves with and which symbols to distance ourselves from. Those decisions align us into groups. To feign ignorance of a widely known, controversial symbol might align one with the unsavory group it represents in the eyes of all who know better.

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