In this intriguing book, distinguished Spanish author Rosa Montero explores how writers and other artists create, and the extent to which their eccentricity, sometimes insanity, is a necessary part of that process. Imagination, fact and fiction, neuroscientific research, her own memories and those of other creative artists are woven together in Montero’s inimitable way to produce a brilliant, quirky reflection on the relationship between creativity and madness. The Danger of Being Sane is a hard-to-classify book that considers whether writing and insanity are flip sides of the same coin. This is a must-read essay by one of Spain’s most well-known writers.
I’ve always known that something inside my head wasn’t right. When I was six or seven, every night before falling asleep, I’d ask my mother to hide a small ornament we had in the house, a horrendous little copper cooking pot, a typical item found in cheap souvenir shops, or maybe even a gift from a restaurant. I asked her to do it, not because the ugliness of the pot made me uncomfortable – that might have seemed a bit odd but, in a sense, discerning – but because I’d read somewhere that copper was poisonous and I was afraid that I’d sleepwalk in the middle of the night and start licking the pot. I don’t really know how such an idea could have come to me – added to which I’ve never been a sleepwalker. Even back then, it struck me as a little weird, but that didn’t stop me from being able to visualise myself quite clearly running my tongue up and down the metal and, terrified as a result, actually asking my mother to please, please, please keep hiding the object in some out-of- the-way spot, a different place each time if she could, so it would be impossible for me to find it. My imagination, as you can see, has always had a mind of its own. And my wonderful mother agreed gravely and promised to hide the pot really well. She magically understood children; moreover, I now think it likely that similar things occurred to her when she was little. Because she also had a flighty mind.
To top it all, as an adult I found out that copper isn’t toxic; it’s not even very poisonous. It can be harmful, of course, but only in large, prolonged doses, and the early symptoms are little more than diarrhoea and nausea. I could have sucked that wretched pot for a long time without anything occurring. This sort of thing happens very often: you get older, and one day you suddenly find out that something you firmly believed as a child is not true or is nonsense. Life is a constant rewriting of yesterday. A deconstruction of childhood.
One of the good things I have discovered over time is that being weird is not at all unusual, despite what the word seems to suggest. In point of fact, what is really rare is to be normal. Research carried out in the Department of Psychology at Yale University in Connecticut and published in 2018, confirmed something which, if you think about it, is self-evident: normality doesn’t exist. Because the notion of normal is a statistical construction which derives from the most common.
To start with, the fact that something is less frequent doesn’t imply a pathological abnormality. Take, for example, being left-handed – only between ten and seventeen percent of the world’s population are left-handed. In addition, since the ideal model of a normal individual is constructed as the average of several characteristics, there ought not to be a single person on the planet who scores exactly that average in all the values. Deep in our hearts, we all hide some divergence. We are all weird beings although, clearly, some of us are more peculiar than others.
I would even say that being a little bit stranger than usual is not uncommon either. In fact, it often crops up in people who are creative (in the widest sense of the word), among artists of every sort, good or bad. That’s precisely what this book is about – the relationship between creativity and a certain eccentricity. It explores the idea that creativity has something to do with delusion; if being an artist makes you more prone to mental instability, as has been suspected since the beginning of time: ‘There is no great genius without some touch of madness,’ said Seneca. And Diderot: ‘Oh! how near are genius and madness!’.
Translated by Lilit Žekulin Thwaites
From El peligro de estar cuerda
(‘The Danger of Being Sane’)
by Rosa Montero
Translated by Lilit Ž̌ekulin Thwaites
Published by Seix Barral (Planeta) (2022)
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Rosa Montero is a Spanish journalist and author of contemporary fiction. She began working for El País in 1976, and was the first woman to receive the Manuel del Arco award for her work. In 1979, she published her first novel, Crónica del desamor, and has continued writing since, publishing a large oeuvre of novels for which she has won several awards.
Lilit Žekulin Thwaites is an award-winning translator of contemporary Spanish literature, including Antonio Iturbe’s The Librarian of Auschwitz, and works by Rosa Montero. She is currently President of the Australian Association for Literary Translation, and received Spain’s Order of Civil Merit for her promotion of Spanish literatures and cultures.