They were composed of oddly familiar pieces of ivory.
After some unsubtle prompting, Nick notices Wolfshiem’s cufflinks, which are made from human molars. I can remember the first time I read this, and thinking “Huh, kind of cool.” Now I find the concept barbaric. What has happened in the decades since?
Well, adolescents are not fully developed humans, most particularly lacking in the sense of humanity that can only be developed by definition in living. As a teen I could have worn a piece of human bone on my clothing without ever thinking about the person whose parts decorated my shirt. Now having lost various bits of my own through careless age and sundry violence, there are pieces of me adrift in the universe and I wouldn’t kindly regard their use as fashion. And even if their former owners wouldn’t care, I couldn’t wear someone else’s bodily fragments; it is too much of a denial of their humanity and a display of deficiency in mine.
It’s not just me that’s changed, but the world at large has changed since I first read about molar cufflinks, and of course changed even more since the book was published between the world wars. Wolfshiem is the only notably ethnic character in an uber-WASPy book, and his Jewish background is a terrible contrast to his accessorizing. Twenty years after the book’s publication, the world was horrified by reports of lampshades made from human skin, decorating the Nazi chambers at Buchenwald. It’s hard to read about Meyer Wolfshiem’s accessorial pride now without projecting the character into his future, reading sadly about the concentration camps and angrily tossing his cufflinks into the trash.
A sign of a world beyond both morality and irony: today you can get your very own replica molar cufflinks for around forty dollars, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find parts of the world where you could get the real thing for less.