I have become accustomed to signing emails with Je responderay. It is Old French for “I will answer.” I formed this habit after reading Isak Dinesen, who borrowed it from the family crest of her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton. Like all mottoes, the spareness of the formula belies a profound meaning. To answer seems such a simple gesture, but as Dinesen observes,
[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… [How], then, can you yourself go on speaking?
To converse or correspond is an invitation to communion. It requires of the individual a certain availability of the self, a gracious welcoming, a willingness to be freed from self-containment. She describes finding such community in Africa:
My daily life out there was filled with answering voices; I never spoke without getting a response; I spoke freely and without restraint, even when I was silent… The dark figures around me answered me, even without speaking, in their noiseless gentle movements and quiet, keen glances.
There is also another mode of answering which for Dinesen signifies an ethical stance:
I will answer for what I say or do; I will answer to the impression I make. I will be responsible.
The ability to speak for one’s actions–to give account–makes of them moral acts, not merely dictates of one’s nature. Beyond this is the ability to respond to another in need. And even further: to take responsibility for another, to answer for another with one’s life.
This simple phrase commits us to an ethical back-and-forth, a give-and-take, that governs all human transactions: I will answer, I will respond.
(On the Eve of the Solar Eclipse of 2017)
Isak Dinesen, author of “Out of Africa