On Mottoes

If you’ve read any interviews with me, you’ll know that one of my favorite writers is Isak Dinesen. And one of my favorite essays is her “On Mottoes of My Life.”

When I was young, a teenager, I had a green book in which I wrote down memorable quotations. (Which was, I now realize, an activity popular in the nineteenth century, not so much in the twentieth.) I don’t have that book anymore, I don’t know what happened to it. But there are three quotations from it that I remember distinctly.

The first one was from Dinesen, a motto that she chose for herself as a teenager, and it was this: “Navigare necesse est, vivere non necesse.” Evidently, this is a quotation from Pompey, who used it to urge his sailors on when they refused to set sail on a stormy sea, to bring grain from Africa to Rome. It means, literally, “It is necessary to sail, it is not necessary to live.” Meaning, it is necessary to set off, even if you’re not at all sure that you’re ever going to arrive. I’ve used this motto several times in my life, to urge myself on to something when I was afraid that I would never actually succeed at it. It was a more elegant way of saying to myself, “For goodness’s sake, just start.”

The next quotation I remember from my book is the following:

“Sail, sayeth the King. Hold, sayeth the wind.”

In other words, all the political powers of the world can command, but they cannot countermand the power of nature itself, or of whatever power lies beyond nature. The power, whether natural or supernatural, that creates our fates, that gives shape and purpose to our lives, that so often allows or does not allow us to set sail.

And the third and final quotation is as follows:

“When two thieves meet, they need no introduction. They recognize each other without question.”

Which I take to mean that people who are in some sense fundamentally alike, not on the surface but underneath, recognize and respond to each other. When I’ve met people who have later become close friends, I have almost immediately known that they were somehow, underneath, like me. And the friendship naturally followed. (Thieves: I have never stolen anything in my life. But thieves are outsiders who observe society, and in that way, writers are also like thieves. And we do steal, don’t we? Not material possessions, but the expressions on people’s faces, place names, particular slants of light, even lines from other writers.)

When Dinesen was in Africa, she took as her motto “Je responderay,” “I will answer,” from the family crest of her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton. Of it, she writes,

“I liked this old motto so much that I asked Denys, an earlier pioneer in African than myself – although all we settlers who had come out before the war looked upon ourselves as one family, a kind of Mayflower people – if I might have it for my own. He generously made me a present of it and even had a seal cut for me, with the words carved on it. The device was meaningful and dear to me for many reasons, two in particular.

“The first of these was its high valuation of the idea of the answer in itself. For an answer is a rarer thing than is generally imagined. There are many highly intelligent people who have no answer at all in them. A conversation or a correspondence with such persons is nothing but a double monologue – you may stroke them or you may strike them, you will get no more echo from them than from a block of wood. And how, then, can you yourself go on speaking?”

I think she’s right; I’ve had many conversations in my life that were double monologues. The person who can hear you and respond to you, that is a precious thing. That is a friend, a fellow-thief.

In her essay, Dinesen writes about losing the farm in Africa, about the death of Finch-Hatton in an airplane crash. That was when she started writing her Seven Gothic Tales. Although she had always told stories: I think of her telling stories to Finch-Hatton, when he would come to her farm after leading a safari – creating characters and plots for her lover, like a more fortunate Scheherazade. In her tumultuous life, it was probably useful to be able to hold on, as a sailor might hold on to a floating spar, to a motto such as “Navigare necesse est” or “Je responderay.”

I hope I choose my mottoes as wisely.

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2 Responses to On Mottoes

  1. Henri Kellogg says:

    Did she – Isak Dinesen – botch the quotation? I doubt it, though I have yet to look it up in her writings. In any case, that isn’t my job, is it? It clearly should have been yours, I’m afraid.

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