Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.
(Death in the Afternoon – Ernest Hemingway)
I made my first post-Covid trip abroad last month, to Alicante in southern Spain. It was a family visit and each day was arranged around the routines and rhythms of domestic life. But I did take on a walk on my own most mornings, wandering around this easy-going, unpretentious city that I’ve come to know well over the years. And on those morning walks I would pass by Alicante’s bullring, the Plaza de Toros, closed since the pandemic began, though the festival is due to resume next year.
Bullfighting is incomprehensible to many Europeans. At first sight, it seems simply a relic of a savage unenlightened past. It’s an activity that I’m sure the rationalist bureaucrats of the EU would love to ban but don’t dare to. There would be a Spanish national uprising if they tried. But that may change. Blood sports are out of step with the times, if you gauge the times by the mores and concerns of the liberal West. Not that bullfighting is a sport. Call it that within the hearing any Spanish aficionado and you’re asking to be corrected in the tersest of terms. Bullfighting is both ritual and art form, and has more in common with flamenco than football.
I’ve been to a bullfight once in my life and while I didn’t exactly enjoy it, I found the spectacle, and the communal nature of it, fascinating. It was pagan and bloody and cruel. But it was not barbaric. It was a centuries-old theatre of ritualized death. The courage of the matadors was astonishing. Yes, it’s inevitable that the beast will die, but so might the fighter. I saw one matador get badly gored in his thigh. And there is honour at stake too. Another was jeered for the lack of precision in his sword thrusts. Dishonour and death are the twin poles between which the matador must navigate.
Bullfighting has deep roots in Mediterranean culture. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the hero Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill the Bull of Heaven. The bull is a living animal that became a mythic archetype, represented in the zodiac, worshipped by the Egyptians and the Minoans, and sacrificed by the Romans and the Druids. Kings and popes and reformers have tried to ban bullfighting but it endures. I’m conflicted about it myself. The cruelty of the ritual is undeniable but I’m deeply uneasy about the drive to judge every area of human culture against secular liberal norms.
Of course, the mere fact of something being a tradition is not in itself a justification. There are good and bad cultural practices. We cannot suspend morality at the entrance to the Plaza de Toros. If a fighting bull could speak, what would it choose? These beasts are bred solely for this purpose. The alternative is not a pleasant life of grazing punctuated by occasional bouts of sex. The choice is between non-existence or a relatively pampered upbringing followed by death in the ring. Death — accompanied by the choice of inflicting an equivalent fate on the adversary. If the bull could make a choice, I think I know what it would be.
[Image of Francisco de Goya’s painting Bullfight in a Divided Ring courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]