Updated: Aug 10, 2020
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.