Although the things “everyone knows” seem like common-sense realities, inevitable and unshakable facts, the truth is that they aren’t. They change. But if what “everyone knows” can change, then how is it that everybody still seems to know it? How do we know what we know about sex? How do we arrive at our expectations, our interpretations of words and behaviours and appearances, our opinions of ourselves and of others where sexuality is concerned? Does it matter?

– Hanne Blank, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012)


The Devil’s penis was the obsession of every Inquisitor and the “star” of nearly every witch’s confession. The women invariably said it was cold but there was disagreement on other details. Some located his penis at his rear. Some said he had two, others that it was forked. Most reported it was black and covered with scales. Several said “there was nothing where scrotum and testicles should be hanging.” One likened the Devil’s penis to that of a mule, which the Evil One constantly exposed, so proud was he of its massive size and shape. The Devil’s ejaculate was said to exceed that of one thousand men. But others claimed his penis was smaller than a finger and not even as thick. This led a French Inquisitor to guess that Satan served some witches better than others.

– David M. Friedman, A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (2001)

Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; except, perhaps, those with persons, entirely disingenuous, who really do not believe the opinions they defend, but engage in the controversy, from affectation, or from a spirit of opposition. The same blind adherence to their own arguments is to be expected in both; the same contempt of their antagonists; and the same passionate vehemence, in enforcing sophistry and falsehood. And as reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.

― David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751)

This institution represented an attempt to shift on to others — specifically, the victims — the burden of guilt, so that they were deprived of even the solace of innocence. It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done because what it was possible to perpetrate yesterday can be attempted again tomorrow. […] One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one’s mind: this is a temptation one must resist.

– Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (1986)

Are sea elephants lovely? Not to us. It is hard to imagine an uglier creature. What makes a sea elephant lovely to another sea elephant is not what makes a woman lovely to a man, and to call some as-yet-unobserved woman lovely who, as it happens, would mightily appeal to sea elephants would be to abuse both her and the term.

– Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991)

The true male egoist neither hates nor loves. He is quite empty, at the middle of him. Only on the surface he has feelings: and these he is always trying to get away from. Inwardly, he feels nothing. And when he feels nothing, he exults in his ego and knows he is safe. Safe, within his fortifications, inside his glass tower.

But I doubt if women can even understand this condition in a man. They mistake emptiness for depth. They think the false calm of the egoist who really feels nothing is strength. And they imagine that all the defenses which the confirmed egoist throws up, the glass tower of imperviousness, are screens to a real man, a positive being. And they throw themselves madly on the defences, to tear them down and come at the real man, little knowing that there is no real man, the defences are only there to protect a hollow emptiness, an egoism, not a human man.

― D.H. Lawrence, Selected Essays (1950)

It was by preference, and not by necessity, that Sook Yongsheng lived and worked alone. He was not surly by temperament, and in fact did not find it difficult to form friendships, nor to allow those friendships to deepen, once they had been formed; he simply preferred to answer to himself. He disliked all burdens of responsibility, most especially when those responsibilities were expected, or enforced—and friendship, in his experience, nearly always devolved into matters of debt, guilt, and expectation.

– Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (2013)

Just as for the poet writing verse, so it is for the prose writer: success consists in felicity of verbal expression, which every so often may result from a quick flash of inspiration but as a rule involves a patient search for the mot juste, for the sentence in which every word is unalterable, the most effective marriage of sounds and concepts. I am convinced that writing prose should not be any different from writing poetry. In both cases it is a question of looking for the unique expression, one that is concise, concentrated, and memorable.

– Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium (1988)

Every means and every weapon is valid to save oneself from death and time. If a straight line is the shortest distance between two fated and inevitable points, digressions will lengthen it; and if these digressions become so complex, so tangled and tortuous, so rapid as to hide their own tracks, who knows—perhaps death may not find us, perhaps time will lose its way, and perhaps we ourselves can remain concealed in our shifting hiding places.

– Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

Kublai asks Marco, ‘When you return to the West, will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?’

‘I speak and speak,’ Marco says, ‘but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.’

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)