As we stepped into the Gheto Nuovo my mind unexpectedly produced a Jewish word or at least a word of Jewish origin: Leviathan.
Not a word I'm overly familiar with I made a point of reading about it on Wikipedia when we returned to the hotel. Apart from the slippery definitions it has acquired over the centuries from "wriggling serpent who will be killed at the end of time" (Isaiah 27:1) to the more straightforward 'whale' the association that struck me most was the one with the seminal political work of Thomas Hobbes and the novel by Paul Auster.
In Auster's novel he includes a character based on the French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, a sometime controversial figure who was in the habit of following strangers and gathering 'evidence' of their existence. Unsurprisingly one of her investigations, 'Suite Venetienne', led her to Venice.
Furthermore Calle was part of a radical literary movement called Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle). Oulipo's roster included Italo Calvino, who famously reimagined the 13th Century journey of Venetian resident Marco Polo in 'Invisible Cities' and Georges Perec whose novel 'La Disparition' traced the disappearance of the letter 'e' within its own text, a technique that was commonly seen as a euphamism for the disappearance of European Jews during the holocaust.
Unfamiliar with both Perec and Oulipo I had been intrigued when I discovered the novel on the bedside table of my brother in law in Copenhagen a month earlier.
The day after our visit to the Gheto we visited the Biblioteca Marciana primarily for the privilege of viewing the 15th Century testament of the known world the Fra Mauro Map. The map, we later discovered, falls under the supervision of cartographer Piero Falchetta. Apart from being an esteemed authority on ancient maps and medieval travel writing Falchetta is most distinguished for his translation of 'La Scomparsa' (George Perec's 'La Disparition') for which he won the 1996 Leone Traverso Prize.
Despite the 20 million visitors a year documenting every centimetre of theirs and the city's experience Venice somehow manages to remind us of something unsettling. For everything we know there is something we don't know; or, more ambitiously, entertaining the thought that perhaps knowledge has a fixed size, for everything we learn there is something we forget. Like Donald Sutherland in 'Don't Look Now' as you pursue something you’re sure you can grasp or someone you are sure you have seen you lose sight of where it is you came from. And when you turn forward once again that which you were pursuing disappears beneath the surface leaving you unsure of what lies ahead and what lies behind.
This Side Up or Handle With Care
Nietszche claimed that words are indicative of what we don’t understand not what we do. We set them up like bivouacs on the perimeter of uncharted territories, beacons whose inadequate light presumes to contain vast uncharted stretches of the human experience. The less we understand the more the word is allowed to contain; God, for example, universe or ocean.
As we increase our knowledge of that territory the word suffers a series of demotions until what was once a brawny, glint-eyed cavalier with a seductive jaunt to his chevron is stripped of his semantic rank and, like a telegraph office in the age of the internet, discarded as a relic or, worse, preserved as a museum like many a Shakespearean term.
In this context the word ‘fragile’ has proven to be a remarkably tenacious one with an unusually long and uncorrupted history. Originating from the latin ‘fragilis’ of the verb ‘frangere’ , to break, it has spread through the entire canon of European languages relatively unmolested since the 15th century, adapting to its current meaning of ‘likely to break’ as early as the 16th century.
Why so popular? Especially when, much like it’s first cousin ‘precious’, it doesn’t have the most appealing connotations.Fragile objects, to be ‘handled with care’, imply wealth and cultivation, but with a hint of the insincere, of unfinished business, like the cluttered sentinels of a dowager’s solitude. In humans, worse, it suggests a mildly distasteful weakness, the opposite of peasant rusticity; it speaks of pain wilfully unresolved, of grief undigested. The point at which something breaks in ourselves is a frontier whose insignia are so unclear that the notion of ‘fragility’ can’t help but delegate an inevitable despotism, passive though it may be.
It’s about what we want. What we want so dearly that we will even entertain exchanging that which is most fragile within ourselves to possess it.
In all this the true nature of that which is truly ‘fragile’ becomes lost. When humans break they don’t make a great noise. When something is taken away from them there are no loud and colourful props, no road signs to the loss, simply a change in expression, a light that goes out behind the eyes like wonder swiftly extinguished or a beacon retired from the perimeter.