Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1999
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Divine Motives
Author's Notebook

By Dale Keiger

As a writer of nonfiction, I'm professionally engaged in the business of reading signs to figure out what someone is about. I listen to what he or she says in response to my questions. What's the content of her answers? How did he choose to say it? What did they emphasize? What was her facial expression? What did he not say? I look at how they dress, what's on the walls of their offices, what they have in their homes. What are their passions? What did he have for lunch? What did she name her cats? So it was a particularly fascinating process to follow Dan Weiss's process as he tried to figure out what Louis IX was all about, from a distance of more than seven centuries. All he had to go on was the art Louis commissioned. Yes, there are historical records, a bit of correspondence from Louis himself, accounts of contemporaries. But that presents narrative fact, the drier expressions of history. To know Louis's soul, Weiss had to study the art. He had to read images in a way that most of us cannot. I'm fascinated by people who know how to read. I don't mean read in the conventional sense of being literate. I mean read things like images, sounds, subtle variances, and ghostly traces. I once drove around Kentucky with a man who could identify the manufacturer of deisel engines solely by the sound they made as trucks roared by us. Years ago in Italy I enjoyed the company of a woman who could glance at the wall of a 300-year-old building and read for me all the uses it had been put to over three centuries. Weiss "read" the Arsenal Old Testament and Sainte-Chappelle in a way no one previously had done. Talk to him for a while, and you emerge wondering how much else we've been missing for centuries. It might be right their in front of us, but we're illiterate to it.