Devil In The Detail

The devil is in the detail’ – it’s an awfully cautious expression. Used to alert us to tripwires made from words, to snare traps hidden in contracts or agreements. It makes an assumption that ‘they’ are out to get you in the small print. I don’t think it’s a great training for life if we look at things with an overly suspicious mind, always looking ahead to see what’s lurking in the shadows, going to pounce from the long grass and grab you by the ankle! So how about just reading our paperwork diligently (yawn!) and then debunking the old saying, turning it on its head, and declaring the very opposite: that the beauty is in the detail; that the detail is something to appreciate, and it is here in the everyday, everywhere, in every moment. As Patrick Kavanagh explains, we see it “wherever life pours ordinary plenty”. That’s a line from his poem ‘Advent’ written sometime in the 1930s. I can imagine Kavanagh, leather booted, with a button up woollen cardigan under a tweed jacket, felt hat on his head, maybe high-belted trousers, tamping alone down a rural Monaghan laneway peering into tired looking ditches and finding loveliness in the mud and bracken and weeds and “dreeping hedges”. We will never notice the detail if we do not appreciate the ordinary, he teaches. In the same poem he writes: And the newness that was in every stale thing / When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking / Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill.” There’s many a day when it takes one’s better self to recognise the beauty in black slanting Ulster hill, but beautiful it is and we do well to be reminded.

Another Irishman for the detail was James Joyce. I recently watched a documentary that described how Joyce would write home from wherever he was living in Europe (Trieste, Paris and Zurich) to get an assurance that details on specific areas of Dublin that he was including in ‘Ulysses’ were correct. No flights of imagination for him in terms of place – he wanted to give an accurate account of the geography of the city. Apparently, in one letter, his questioning concerned the position of a certain back alley: the height of a drop from a back yard wall, whether or not someone could drop onto it from a back window and then drop down from the wall into the alleyway without injury. Wouldn’t you wonder why it mattered in a work of fiction, but to him it did.

I’m away to wrap up like Kavanagh and take a walk in a town I’ve walked thousands of times before. Lets see if I can find any newness in it.

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