The first time I heard that God is in the details was from the poet Sheryl Luna at a reading she was giving in Chuco.
It struck me as a true statement at the time, and I couldn’t help but think of a quote from Borges wherein he says every detail (in fiction) is an omen.
As writers we write detail, and as happened to all of us--and as should continue to happen until we weave our last sentences--we often re-read something we have written and only then do we notice how much meaning is hidden in the detail, even if we hadn’t intended it.
When I visit colleges and universities where students have read my books in class, they ask me questions about their interpretation of the work, and I am often stunned by how much they have read in the details. Often I am convinced that they discovered something about the work that I had no idea existed.
Did you know, for example, that in my novel and the shadows took him, William might have sexually abused Vero when she was younger?
I had no idea, but that was what some students pointed out to me, and they had the detail to prove it.
Our favorite writers write with such divine detail, things like “nadie vio la luna que sangraba en mi boca," (Neruda) or, “when you open your mouth, a ball of yellow light falls to the floor." (Ai)
When I heard Sheryl Luna say “God is in the detail,” I believed it because of the various layers of meaning that are often uncovered in closely examining a poem or a story.
She attributed the quote to another poet, whose name I forget, but I have come to learn that it is often attributed to the last person that said it. My students think I invited it.
Recently I was shocked to find that one of my colleagues was the first one to coin the phrase.
A student wrote a paper in my class that opened with the phrase, “God is in the detail,” an epitaph at the top of the page, and he wrote the name of the originator, Lex Williford, my colleague and a professor the student had a semester before me.
The phrase is attributed to many sources, click here, and we have even given it variations like, the devil is in the detail. The meaning is in the detail. The truth is in the detail. The kitchen sink is in the detail, as if the sum of all these things is God.
But I believe that God is NOT in the detail.
I’m going to explain why in a bit, but first let me say that the concept is true enough if the definition of God were “meaning” or the effect a work has on an observer. Details allow a reader to feel something, to connect as it were, and the closer we examine a passage, the deeper we can go into the fictional landscape.
One of my favorite fiction details, which I have tried unsuccessfully to steal many times, comes from Benard Malamud’s The Tenants.
“He put on his cold pants.”
I love it.
I feel the cold fabric rising up my legs. I feel the stiff denim material.
That one detail says so much to me, and it also deepens my understanding of the character and the overall meaning of that very cold novel.
Another detail I like comes from Tristan Tzara's Le couer à gaz, and I think I successfully stole it at least once, a detail in Unending Rooms. The line goes “Il n’y a pas d’humanité. Il n’y a que rèverbère et des chien.”
This is from memory, so if my French grammar is off, know that the sentido of the phrase is what matters, There is no humanity. There are only streetlamps and dogs.
I love the desolate image this line leaves with me, how urban , how gray and unfriendly.
So many things lie in the details.
The same is true for photography.
Sometimes one can shoot an image without knowing why, for whatever reason the image strikes them, and only after seeing the image later does the photographer even notice the detail.
Last week, in downtown LA, somewhere in the garment district, I took this shot.
Only later did I see this.
Only later did I notice how much it looked like adoring ladies surrounding la virgencita.
As much as I didn't want to spend much money in Arizona on my drive back, in protest for their anti-Mexican policies, I had to stop for gas. I pulled into a creepy station. A border patrol agent was parked on a hill, looking over the freeway and the gas station.
The image of the place struck me, so I shot and I got this.
It wasn't until later, when I looked at the detail that I saw this.
I think he's one of those law-abiding citizens, looking for illegals. No wonder I felt such an interesting energy of the place and was compelled to take this photo.
But God is not in the detail.
If we think of God as pure energy, to use a concept from mysticism (everyone from William Blake to those law of attraction people), than God has no form, no shape. God is before form.
Blake says all religions are the same, by which he obviously means that the energy behind the metaphorical system, the myths and images that make up the various religious narratives, is the same energy. God is that energy. “Energy is eternal delight.” Energy is God.
Physicists call the missing elementary particle, that which makes up all things, the God particle, yet the moment they try to give it an equation, is the moment God becomes a metaphor and is therefore restricted to a singular meaning.
Even their system cannot restrict God.
A pre-anthropomorphized God has no gender.
I love how the first reference to God in the book of Genesis is Elohim, a Hebrew word with a plural ending, so that a literal translation cannot simply be “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” but Gods (not “the gods,” because there is no use in this case of the Hebrew word for “the,” which is “ha”, the letter he with a vowel mark, before the word “Elohim" ) but Gods, “they”, which is not to say in a polytheistic way that there are many gods, but rather to say that when we assigns a single pronoun to God, we assign an image, we singularize, and thus we limit God.
God cannot be made in our image without taking away some of God’s energy.
Kabbalah sometimes refers to God as the no-thing. God is not a thing, rather God is the energy that gives life to all things. God is beyond all things.
God is not in the detail. God's tracks are in the detail.
The details, like all things, are part of the One, part of the unified whole, and in that sense the details contains divinity, like all of us do, like every one of our fingers, like every one of the hairs on our head.
But a single strand of hair on my head which rises up above the others because of some static electrical phenomenon is not God.
We are artists, created in God’s image, and our impulse to create is a reflection of the divinity within us.
When we write a poem, our energy or reason for writing, that which compelled us to sit for hours to create the most meaningful work we are capable of, that is God. That impulse does not contain theme, it does not contain meaning. The form of the work does, which is to say the sum of the details within a work.
Rather the impulse is our energy, our will to live, which is a will to create.
God is not in the details. Our ideas are in the details, our ability to give form to our creations.
God is beyond and behind the details--