26 April 2011


I have been thinking about the expression “The devil is in the details.”  I am not exactly certain what had raised this issue in my consciousness right now (an interesting metaphor, I believe, regarding the appearance of ideas to the mind), but I have been for sometime concerned with the ubiquitous presence of details. Sometimes I think my life is consumed with these details and that there is no grander picture beyond them; at other times, I complain that not enough focus is given to the details and besides, that grand picture I proposed last week, lacked any substantive reality. Sometimes the details seem not at all important: which toothpaste, indeed, any toothpaste, I use probably makes little difference to my dental health. But sometimes the larger picture remains foregrounded: my general dental health remains a central concern regardless of the brand of toothpaste I choose. 
I don’t know exactly what this pronouncement—the devil is in the details—actually means, but I do have a few thoughts on the matter that once raised I now want to hold aloft, or carry along for a bit.  It is said (though I am not sure by whom) that the saying that connects the devil to the details derives from an earlier statement claiming that “God is in the details.” I am not sure which statement is more accurate, but in both cases the details remain the sticking point. In both cases, it is to the details that one must look for meaning, and in either case, then, the details are the whole. In fact, I do not honestly care with whom the details are associated;, the Devil or the Lord; what I do care about is the details. 
I would suspect that whoever said ‘the devil is in the details’ most probably found that the details too often made some hoped-for concord in life impossible to achieve. The details defied the very idea of untroubled unity; those pesky details too often revealed the cracks and rents of which that unity was actually comprised, and rendered that unity evilly illusory and deceptive. Needless to say, (but now I’m going to say it anyway) this person would attribute all such difficulty and discord to the work of the Devil: the whole must be heavenly, but the devil is in the details, and they just ruin the identity of the whole. The devil made him do it, and there is no way to avoid this devil. The ideal of the perfect relationship often cracks apart at the discovery of the first detail of actual living, no matter of what that detail might turn out to consist. “Oh, just get over it” we say to gloss over the presence of the Devil, but there are many hurdles over which we must daily leap. The course of a single day never does run smooth. I, for one, am very weary at the end of the day, ‘weary,’ that is, as opposed to ‘tired,’ the former partaking of some psychological enervation and the latter of some actual physical fatigue. Similarly, any valuable, compleat philosophical worldview splinters from a first contact with real beings operating in the actual world of human behaviors. The exception—that damned detail—proves the rule, but that universal rule is always so much more orderly and comfortable. I think to those who believe that the Devil is in the details, daily life must be truly a horror or a fantasy. 
But if it is God that inhabits the details then God must be that which comprises the whole, for there can be no detail that is not part of some whole: in terms of architecture (it is to the German architect, Ludwig Miles Van der Rohe, to whom is attributed the statement connecting God with the details) the beauty of a structure would be found in the untold number of small items (the details) of which the whole consists. That is, the beauty of the whole is comprised of small parts, and in those small parts the wonder of creation can be found. Diamond Jim makes his usual entrance with every hair in place! God is the whole but God cannot exist except in the details. Spinoza says, “By God, I mean a being absolutely infinitethat is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.” God is in the details. 
In either caseGod or the Devilthe central fact of life resides in the details. I have long been concerned with those details. Sometimes I do not wonder if she loves me but whether she placed the cap back on the toothpaste. I am not pleased when I hear that the overall idea in a piece of my writing is certainly of great interest, but that my execution of the whole work requires some specific revisions. It is not my general health with which I am concerned, but the proper functioning of each and every organ, vein, artery and nerve. Barry Bonds may have hit more home runs than Babe Ruth or Roger Maris, but the specific details of accomplishing that feat call the whole into question. The Devil is certainly in the details here. 
Of course, if God is in the details then only when I observe the details do I see the whole. Spinoza again: Whatsoever is, in in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.” All buildings are alike until I see the frieze on that one; all churches are essentially the same—same basic rooms set up in the same basic manner—but each individual place of worship partakes of the personal that can only be found in the details. God was in this place and I should have known it. 
The issue certainly resides in the details. Perhaps there must be some balance drawn between observing the whole and attending to the details. But what would that balance be, and by what process might that balancing occur, I wonder? The problem seems to be like those psychological drawings: do you see the old hag or the young woman? You can’t see both at the same time, and so finally, what determines the precise object of vision? The tester asks, “What do you see?” but what exactly determines what is actually seen at any single moment since both wholes are observable at any moment but not both together? Under what conditions do I see the beautiful woman and when the old hag? When do I see the frieze before I observe the building? Can I ever do so, except perhaps in a museum when there is no building and only the frieze? Usually, we see that for which we look—Rorschach tests want to know what whole we see in the parts. From this some psychological analysis is attempted. A man sits before a psychologist who places a card before the analysand. “Well, tell me what you see?” Without hesitation the man says, “I see a man and a woman having sex in an alley and he has a very big penis.” The psychologist places a second card on the table before the man. “Ok, tell me what you see now,” and again, without hesitation the man answers, “That’s a picture of a woman getting undressed for her lover whom she expects to arrive any moment and make ravishing love to her. She has very large, succulent breasts” “Hmnn,” the psychologist says, “very interesting,” and he places on the table a third card. “Wow, I see three beautiful women with very large breasts having sex with one man and a dog. And in the corner a old man is watching.” The psychologist looks up at the analysand. “You certainly have sex on your mind, don’t you?” And the analysand looks at the psychologist and with not a little pique, says, “Me? You’re the one showing me all those dirty pictures.” What did the psychologist see in the cards? 
If the devil is in the details, then to focus on them portends conflict. But if God is in the details, then when I see them it is the whole I see. And there is no conflict?


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