Pen Ultimate / A Detailed Analysis

The Devil makes it his business to be wherever God is. The rule of the thumb here is thus simple: If we get the details right, God is in them. If we don't, the Devil must be renting space there.

The Hebrew edition of Haaretz has 59,830 paying subscribers and many more readers, as every copy of the newspaper is actually perused by more than one reader. There are substantially more readers who access the newspaper on the Web. What they all share is the glee with which they hasten to point out errors made by the paper's writers, of which I'm one.

Every so often they are right. Unlike the pope, journalists are extremely fallible. They don't like to be reminded of this, but there it is. They say that to err is human, and I have to remind myself that there are limits to my humanity, at least as it is manifested in my writing.

But sometimes the customers - yes, that what readers of the newspaper are - are wrong. Recently, for example, in an article that I wrote about a mistake that someone else had made - a nitpicking piece, as I was the first to point out - I attributed the saying "God is in the details" to Aby Warburg (1866-1929). There was a readers' contest as to who could be more scathing when pointing out my ignorance and vanity. It is common knowledge, they claimed, that architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe coined that phrase.

I never said that Mies Van der Rohe didn't use to say that, and indeed it is documented in The International Herald Tribune, on June 28, 1959, that he used that saying while speaking in New York about "Restraint in Design." According to the paper he also said: "Less is more." But both phrases were used before he used them, by other people. "Less is more" is attributed to Robert Browning, and "God is in the details" to Aby Warburg.

Checkered recordAby Warburg was the eldest son of the Warburg family of bankers from Hamburg. At 13 he sold his birthright to his younger brother Max, on condition that the family would finance his literary acquisitions for as long as he lived. Max was to say that in effect, he had signed "a huge blank check." Max than went on to run the family bank, which was instrumental in building the German military apparatus prior to World War II.

The Warburgs were also partners in the IG Farben company until 1938, when Max was removed from the board and fled to the United States. His younger brothers Paul and Felix had preceded him there; Paul was one of the main players in establishing the Federal Reserve Bank. A Warburg from another branch of the family, Sigmund, established a bank in the UK. The family can also boast of a Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology, awarded in 1931 to Otto Warburg. Their Jewish ancestry notwithstanding, some of the Warburgs had a rather checkered record during the years of the Nazi rule over parts of Europe.

Aby Warburg went in a different direction: He established himself as an art historian with his study of two Botticelli paintings, and made a name as a painstaking collector of details and as a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary scholar. With family funds he established an institute for cultural studies in Hamburg.

After World War I he suffered from anxiety and was treated in a clinic in Switzerland for some years. In 1925 he struck a deal with his doctors - that he would be released provided he would succeed to deliver a coherent lecture. He spoke about rituals of American Indians (he had studied them before the war) and drew parallels with ancient dionysian Greek rituals.

In his intellectual biography of Warburg, published in 1971, Ernst Gombrich writes that "Der liebe Gott steckt Im Detail" was a favorite saying of his, but does not provide a background reference to it. In an answer to my query, the chief archivist of the Warburg Institute in London (where it moved in the 1930s), Dr. Claudia Wedepohl, wrote that Gombrich is a reliable source on the matter. Warburg wrote on January 16, 1926, to the philologist Johannes Geffken, telling him about a seminar he had held under the motto "God is in the Details" in Hamburg, on November 25, 1925. Warburg's son Max Adolf quoted the saying as a favorite of his father's in his rhymed greetings on the elder Warburgs' birthday in 1927.

It is not inconceivable that Mies Van der Rohe heard the expression from Warburg. Gombrich does not claim that Warburg "invented" it, he just writes that it was his favorite. In its French version it is attributed to Gustav Flaubert, in Italian to Michaelangelo, and in Spanish to St. Teresa of Avila, who had intimate knowledge of God. None of these versions comes with a reference.

In the Book of Job (chapter 38), the Lord addresses his suffering eponymous subject and taunts him with the question: "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?" If Job's attention had not been distracted by his skin inflammation, he would have said: "Granted, I was not yet in existence then. But since you have mentioned it - where were you?"

When Galileo is accused of abolishing heaven in Brecht's "Life of Galileo," he is asked by one of his students: "If heaven does not exist, where is God?" His answer: "Within us, or nowhere."

But if we insist on finding the source for the claim that the details are God's dwelling place, why not search the Hebrew sources? Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes: "There is no doubt that he knows the generalities and the particulars." Rabbi David Kimchi (1160-1235) writes: "Said Hannah that all the matters of the world and needs of the people are in the hands of the Creator, blessed be his name, and it is in his will to attend to the generalities and the particulars according to his will." In a midrash about Abraham, the patriarch finds himself incarcerated and expresses his faith in the Lord as follows: "The God of the whole world tends to and feeds all, he sees and is not seen, he is in heaven above and everywhere and attends to all the details."

There is another version of the saying, as well: "The Devil is in the details." The Devil makes it his business to be wherever God is. The rule of the thumb here is thus simple: If we get the details right, God is in them. If we don't, the Devil must be renting space there. On the other hand, if you don't get all the details right, I would point out that you must have invited the Devil in, instead of God.

Yes, that is what God and the Devil are quarreling about from time immemorial: details of housing arrangements and location. In any case, we are paying the price.