By Tammi J Truax
Published by Seacoast Media Group, September 2008
This summer marked a relatively major milestone for me; I took my first transatlantic trip alone, southern Spain in June. I saw and did many wonderful things while I was there. I could go on forever about just the museums in Madrid, or just not go on at all, and die happy over tapas and sangria by the Mediterranean Sea.
One traditional tourist activity that I weighed heavily both before and after my trip was Corridas de Toros, a bullfight. I decided, after much thought and study, to go - “when in Spain”. I wanted to see and judge for myself what Hemingway called “a wonderful nightmare”. There is intense controversy all over the world and within Spain about the ethics of the bullfight. It has never been more intense, or more in the bull’s favor, than it is now, but anti-bullfighting sentiment is apparently not new.
I was surprised to learn while viewing an exhibit on Francisco De Goya at the Prado Museum that he had passionate feelings about the subject when he created the series of prints called La Tauromaquia in 1815 and 16. (You can view these as a slideshow on YouTube.) Art historians contend that the etchings show “Goya’s need to express his criticism of man’s deep rooted cruelty … brutality, which is explicit from the outset of the series, is an inherent characteristic of the figures from this world as a veiled critique of human barbarity.”
To truly understand the bull fight, which may in fact be impossible for those of us who are not part of the Spanish culture, one must at least evaluate it within its current cultural context, and its significant historical context.
The bullrings, themselves sometimes architecturally visit-worthy, probably originated as temples (Celtic-Iberian) and the rituals that took place in them were about sacrificing bulls to the gods, practices that ancient peoples almost certainly saw as necessary to their own survival. Stories of such sacrifices can be found in the bible and other ancient texts. The bull was the supreme sacrifice because it was the largest of the domesticated animals to offer. Under primarily Roman influence, over what was obviously a very long period of time, the religious significance waned and the rituals became more about entertainment. Though for another lengthy period of time Catholicism became entwined in the entertainment as it did in most aspects of Spanish culture. James Michener wrote elegantly of this entanglement in his novel Miracle in Seville. Now of course, no religious connection whatsoever can be made, and in fact, bullfighting was declared as “cruel and disgraceful exhibitions of devils” by Pope St. Pius V, who forbade attendance under penalty of excommunication. Nowadays, some seriously call it a sport, and some seriously call it art and as such integral to the culture, and some just call it a spectacle, including many Spaniards.
I tried to keep an open mind about all of this when I purchased my terribly expensive ($110.US) ticket for a non-luxurious seat in the sun at an unimportant fight on a Sunday afternoon in Marbella.
The adherence to the antediluvian rituals of the ceremonial opening may indeed have artistic merit. Regalia is almost always arresting. But the work of the matadors, though I was not seeing the rock-stars of the bullfighting world, really didn’t reflect what I would call artistry. Frankly, I have seen better moves on the dance floor, and I was watching hard for, maybe even hoping for, an artistic rationalization, as I had read about, what is supposed to be a spiritual symbiosis between man and beast. I didn’t see it.
What I saw was a very predictable series of grossly unfair fights between a lot of men, and one bewildered animal after another. Each fight went down in exactly the same way so that it became almost boring. I found myself unable to be impressed when a young man, no matter how handsome, stabbed an animal, and then paraded himself, in a rather girly get-up, around the ring to receive applause while over gesticulating to the crowd. The act of hacking off the dead bull’s ear to toss to someone in the crowd as a gift, though deeply entrenched in tradition, seems absurd. I may have been impressed if anything at all had been in the bull’s favor during the fight, but it wasn’t. The matador who makes the final kill has a whole team of men working to weaken the bull first, and when anyone is in any danger they jump behind a wooden partition that the bull rams into, or if too far away from the well placed partitions they just jump the wall. We did see one matador get into what may be one of the most hazardous positions he could be in when he lost hold of his cape, and there was nothing artistic about the way he threw himself into the stands like a rodeo clown, causing my young American companion to remark, “Funny how fighting a bull becomes a lot more difficult when you lose your blanky.”
In truth, the bullfights have clearly changed a lot over the last decade or two, largely in response to global demands. It has become as humane as an animal killing ritual can probably get. The elimination of the goriness there once was has also eliminated much of the peril that has rendered the show relatively facile, and really an almost risk free farce.
Still, in the end, it is about killing. A bull fight is not over until either bull or man is dead, except for in rare instances when an unusually impressive bull is pardoned by the presiding authority. The kill itself, which has been called “the coup de grace”, does appear to be as merciful and skilled as an execution can be. The matador makes one swift thrust of his sword near the base of the skull, which severs the spinal cord, and death is supposed to be instant and painless. Of course, by this time the bull has been physically worn down by a series of other injuries that were not painless. During one bout I heard a bull cry, and I am not sure I’ve ever heard a sadder sound.
I did not enjoy attending a bull fight. I did not enjoy the admonishment of my Madridian amigos several days later claiming that it is tourists like me who keep the bull fights operating. That may be partially true, but the Spanish are ultimately responsible. Some cities, like Barcelona, have outlawed bullfighting. Attendance all over the country is at an all time low, as is commercial sponsorship and televised fights, which were common not long ago. Still there are government funded bull ranches and bull fighting schools in Spain, and money is still being made.
In the end though, it is hard for me to completely condemn the bullfight. It feels too hypocritical, as condemnation usually does to me. The Toro bravo is actually a distinct species of bull, bred for aggression, supposedly of an ancient race conserved only in Spain, and they are revered animals by the Spanish. They are raised in relative luxury and leisure, especially in comparison to most of the ungulates on this planet. They have to work only once in their lives, when and if they are chosen to enter the ring at the age of four, having been respectfully cared for and even blessed. Though I could not verify it, it is said that the dead bulls are always eaten, served in elaborate banquets to the townspeople or fed to the poor.
If I were a bovine I would much rather go out that way then to be raised in an assembly line, live a brief and unnatural life, until killed by mechanical slaughter, and ultimately ordered up as a burger through a plastic clown’s head in a drive-thru eatery at an ugly American strip mall. Give me; give us all, a dignified death.
This image is from one of my favorite children's books, Ferdinand the Bull by Munro Leaf (1936). Ironically, it is a story about pacifism. Ferdinand has always reminded me of my son, Spence.