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The duel within

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From November to February, I can pretend that bullfighting doesn’t exist. From February to April, it begins to appear on the periphery of my consciousness in the same way that an AFL football pre-season always filled me with feelings of impending gloom. But come April and the months that follow, I can no longer ignore it, particularly in Madrid, where a festival dedicated to the city’s patron saint—San Isidro—marks the pinnacle of a bullfighting season that lasts until November offers some respite.

And yet, my discomfort is not what I would like it to be. My problem is the uncomfortable feeling that I cannot entirely condemn Spain’s most infamous national tradition.

Morally, it is easy. Bullfighting is a cruel blood sport, a primitive orgy of death that appears to have no place in modern Europe. A Plaza de Toros—the beautiful arena where bullfights are held—resembles the amphitheatres of Rome, filled with spectators baying for the blood of a frightened wild animal which faces certain death. A British friend and long-time resident of Spain cannot abide bullfighting and likens it to bear-baiting and other brutal pursuits where animals are sacrificed for the entertainment of man. I cannot argue with him.

And yet, there is something, in the words of the bullfighting aficionado otherwise known as Ernest Hemingway, ‘elegantly archaic’ about the whole spectacle. It is the drama of a man dressed in a traje de luces (suit of lights) pitting himself against a 500kg animal that is revered by spectators. It is the strutting interaction between a man with a red cape eager to choreograph his own survival with a statuesque grace and theatrical purity of line and a crowd of highly knowledgeable and sceptical spectators. It is the vividness of death, the compelling sense of absurd tragedy, the duel within me between being unable to watch and unable not to. 

I have never been entirely convinced by the moral relativism of Hemingway’s defence of bullfighting, whereby he argues that, ‘I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.’

Even he acknowledges that ‘from a modern, moral point of view, that is a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death.’

Where I can concur with bullfighting’s most passionate and eloquent defender of the indefensible is his assertion that ‘it is impossible to believe the emotional and spiritual intensity and pure, classic beauty that can be produced by a man, an animal and a piece of scarlet serge draped over a stick’. Indeed, it is true that never has death been more picturesque and so sordid at one and the same time.

Spanish writers have proven to be of little help in my quest to resolve my discomfort. I eagerly agree with Pio Baroja, who denounced the practice of fighting bulls as brutal and cowardly, even as I nod with conviction at the words of Ruben Dario: ‘The spectacle is sumptuous, there is no denying it … the vast circus in which work those jugglers of death … gives off a Roman courage and a Byzantine grace.’

Federico Lorca, the sublime Spanish poet who was murdered by the soldiers of the dictator Francisco Franco, spoke of ‘a religious mystery … the public and solemn enactment of the victory of virtue over the lower interests … the superiority of spirit over matter, of intelligence over instinct, of the smiling hero over the frothing monster’. Antonio Machado described it as ‘a sacrifice to an unknown god’.

But none of these can justify a practice that leads to the deaths of 40,000 bulls in Spain every year, leaving me akin to Montoya, a character in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: ‘He always smiled as though bullfighting were a very special secret between the two of us; a rather shocking but very deep secret that we knew about. He always smiled as though there were something lewd about the secret to outsiders, but that it was something that we understood. It would not do to expose it to people who would not understand.’

But it was Henry James who truly spoke to my ambivalence, understanding it without ever resolving it: ‘The national pastime of Spain is extremely disgusting. One has taken a certain sort of pleasure in the bullfight, and yet how is one to state gracefully that one has taken pleasure in a disgusting thing, an unusual splendour? A bullfight will, to a certain extent, bear looking at, but it will not bear thinking of.’

In the meantime, I long for November.    

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent



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Existing comments

Bull fighting is disgusting, shameful and barbaric. What does it say about our "civilization" that so many tourists flock to Pamplona each year for the Running of the Bulls which climaxes with the torturing and sacrificing of the hapless victims?

Justin | 17 July 2010  

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