'SPARE me the details!" It speaks of busy people, unable to linger for a moment to admire the speckles on a tiger lily. It's the motto of those who take satisfaction in being able to grasp the "big picture," never minding the trivial or the tangential. It may also indicate a crude concern for the "bottom line and a corresponding deafness to moral and aesthetic niceties. But the key to understanding often lies in our ability to perceive and comprehend details. The visionary poet William Blake said it best:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
Blake's insight is that small things are as important as large things: that we live in a world where the smallest creature is as intricate and complex as one many times its size. And the imagination we bring to the act of seeing something is what enables us to experience "Eternity in an hour."
Not everyone has Blake's visionary gift for seeing a world in a grain of sand. Nor is every detail a little world in itself. Sometimes, details are interesting not so much in themselves, but when considered in relation to the larger structure of which they form a part. Thus, in a painting, we may note with pleasure the careful modeling of the subject's hands, the sheen of a necklace, the light reflected off white drapery: small, but vital touches that contribute to the excellence of the whole. Kenneth C l
ark's "100 Details From Pictures in the National Gallery, London" first issued in 1938 and recently released by Harvard University Press in color, provides a panoply of fine details from great masters of the past.
But such pleasures are not confined to museums and high culture: Anyone who has admired a well designed piece of machinery or cleverly fitted item of clothing has perceived this relationship between part and whole. Indeed, the very word detail comes from the same etymological root as the word tailor, meaning "to cut." Details reveal design and workmanship. To have an eye for detail is to be able to appreciate how a coat, a dress, a cabinet, or a car is really constructed.
To a Romantic theorist like the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the perfect relationship between a part and whole in a work of art would be what he called (in happy anticipation of a word popular today for other reasons) "organic." We mean food that is produced "naturally," without the aid of artificial fertilizers. Coleridge meant that the details of a poem or other artwork should have the same kind of "natural," functional relationship to the whole as leaves to a tree, fingers to a hand, or wings to a b i
rd. Certainly, it is wonderfully easy to find in the best poets many fine instances of this kind of "organic" detail. Take these lines from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," spoken by Juliet waiting for the man she's married in secret:
Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow'd night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
It's a stunning image in itself, an apt reflection of the passion and secrecy surrounding their love, a powerful prefiguration of the violence and death still to come, and an echo - or amplification - of Romeo's exclamation on first seeing Juliet:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
Like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear;
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear!
Myriad images resound throughout the play - stars, jewels, lamps, torches, night, blackness, raven's wings - all lending texture and atmosphere to the story's central contrast between the brilliance of love and the darkness of death.
There are certain details, oddly enough, that seem to stick in our minds for the opposite reason: They seem to have little or no bearing on the main subject at hand. Yet, something - perhaps their very irrelevance - distracts the attention, pulling it away from the central focus and focusing instead on the peripheral item. In "Romeo and Juliet," the most famous instance is Mercutio's whimsical little description of Queen Mab, the mischievous "fairies' midwife," driving a chariot made of an empty hazelnu t
with a gnat for her coachman. It's a bravura performance - on Mercutio's part, and Shakespeare's - a dazzling throw-away that few of us who've heard it are willing or able to throw away.
In ages past, when artists often found themselves constantly reworking the same assigned subjects - altarpieces, annunciations, royal portraits, and other commissioned assignments - they sometimes took the opportunity to work in, as part of the background, images not specifically commissioned (for example, the lion and bear in Filippino Lippi's "The Virgin and Child With Saints Jerome and Dominic"). Some details even seem to contain subversive messages that gainsay the artist or writer's overt intention :
The heroic speeches of Milton's Satan in "Paradise Lost" furnished a later generation of Romantic poets with evidence that Milton's true sympathies may have been with the rebellious fallen angel.
The modern novel - which dates back to the 18th century - depends even more upon the use of details to create a sense of realism. While the details of old romances and folktales are usually of symbolic significance - a magic ring, a talking fish, three pebbles, the key to a golden door - the details of the modern novel are primarily there to give us a feeling of verisimilitude, so that the world depicted in the novel looks as complicated, full, rich, and various as the real world. For the reader, it's t o
tal immersion, whether in the teeming 18th-century world of Defoe's "Moll Flanders," the far more subtly drawn moral and social worlds of 19th-century novelists like Tolstoy, Trollope, and George Eliot, or the intricate braid of external society and minute, internal fluctuations of consciousness of Proust's massive fictional project, "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu." In our own time, some novels have become so bogged down in detail as to have provoked a return to spare, stark narratives leaving out all that
is nonessential - the literary equivalent of functionalist architecture.
Although all of us have read novels that are detailed to the point of tediousness (my mother-in-law's frequent verdict on a book she decides to give up on is expressed in two simple words: "The detail!" uttered in a tone of mild outrage), the tendency to omit detail often results in works that are thin and lifeless. The key, obviously, consists in selecting details which are lively and telling. The great novelists have a gift for this, whether it is Dickens' brilliant and obsessive fixation on the oddit i
es of his characters' appearance, facial expression, and speech patterns, or Flaubert's meticulous observation of bourgeois life in "Madame Bovary."
Relevant and irrelevant, all details resist the human tendency toward abstraction. They have a way of getting in the way of grand schemes and five-year plans. Galileo's stubborn attempt to account for a minor detail - the seemingly retrograde motion of the planets he observed - led him to discount the entire Ptolemaic system of the cosmos that put the earth at the center of the universe. A photograph of a single dislocated child moves us more than reports of thousands of refugees. In our own century of m
ass marketing, depersonalization, totalitarian regimes, and mass destruction, details testify to the enduring value of the individual life: specific, erratic, and irreplacable.