Sunday, April 01, 2007
Devil or Angel?
"The devil is in the details."
You hear that phrase a lot, especially when people are discussing the fine points of a contract or some other type of negotiations. In his entertaining and thoroughly researched book The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, Ralph Keyes chronicles a long history of the saying. (I myself first heard it in the 1980s, in reference to arms talks between the Americans and the Soviets.)
Ralph Keyes notes that architect Mies van der Rohe was fond of observing, "God is in the details," and goes on to cite earlier variations of the saying, including French and German proverbs. One particular citation is from a mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam professor, Caspar Barleaus:
"Believe me that in the smallest particle God is enshrined."
I like that particular example because it resonates with a mysticism of the ordinary world. This richness is found in the writings of the French anthropologist and priest Teilhard de Chardin (read him years ago; very difficult but rewarding) and in Taoist and Buddhist writers. The universe in a grain of sand. The divine milieu. Traditional haiku celebrates such epiphanies in the natural world (as seen in one leaf, for example).
So, how did the God-oriented phrase transform into "The devil is in the details"? Ralph Keyes mentions quotes from Admiral Hyman Rickover, an old German proverb, and even H. Ross Perot as reasons for the popularity of the Luciferian version. But the question is left unanswered.
Whether devil or angel, count me as a details person. I can't help it.
For some people, details are an annoyance; these folks can't be bothered. They leave it up to us to do their dirty work, so to speak. But I shouldn't call it dirty work.
It's the heart of the matter, if not the heart and soul. (Speaking of which, if you are having heart or brain surgery performed, you will want one of us detailed people.)
I confess this obsession with details is either a blessing or a curse. In my youth, it came in handy on exams, with my brain acting as if it possessed pornographic (oops! photographic) memory. But translate that to a depiction of God, and you get The Infinitely Accurate Nitpicker Supreme Being. Not very healthy, or spiritual.
Incidentally, typos can matter big time. The whole concept of so-called domain swiping or domain tasting depends on seemingly tiny errors to engage in cybersquatting. Thus, Web site names with words like the intentionally misspelled "Hoogle" or "Winows" can potentially involve large sums of money, or significant lawsuits. (I haven't experienced such a winfall, or windfall, yet.)
So, is it the devil or an angel in the details?
I'm going for:
"The angel is in the details."
It may make my Monday more rewarding; perhaps it will suffuse the details of my day with redemptive qualities.
After all, it is Holy Week.
p.s. Wikipedia has a fine entry on Chardin, including this tasty morsel: Teilhard died on April 10, 1955 in New York City. . . . A few days before his death Teilhard said "If in my life I haven't been wrong, I beg God to allow me to die on Easter Sunday". April 10 was Easter Sunday.