When I was seventeen, I somehow found myself at one of the last bullfights ever put on in Catalonia. I was wandering on my own in northern Spain, and when I got to Barcelona, I decided it would be good for my education to buy a cheap ticket at the Monumental bullring in the sun. This was in July 2010: at the end of that month, in an effort to wash Catalonia clean of Spanish culture, the Generalitat voted to ban bullfighting.
The billed matador that day was Julián López Escobar, better known as El Juli, who is considered the best matador in the world. Here he is at the Falles, a March fire-festival in Valencia:
Spanish bullfighting is a gory and tribal spectacle. When I saw it in 2010, I was shocked by everything that was alien to my urban and Jewish childhood: blaring music, a flamboyant parade, a shouting crowd, shimmering clothing, and dark streams of blood that stained the sand.
Most people who’ve never seen a bullfight imagine something like this: a bull leaps lustily into the ring, and the colorful matador stands there tranquilly. Then the bull charges to kill him, and he stands there until the last second, finally dodging with a swish of his cape. The procedure happens a few times over, and finally the matador stabs the bull, who dies instantly.
That’s not what happens at all. When he’s first released, the bull is first surrounded by picadors on horseback, who plunge lances into his neck to weaken its muscles. In the beginning, the bull is filled with enthusiastic rage, charging all the horses indiscriminately. But as he gets weakened by pain, he slows down and charges them one by one. Black blood pours down his back, which is quickly soaked. Before the late 1920s, the bull often killed the picadors’ horses during this process. Now the horses are fitted with a thick screen called a peto, which makes it nearly impossible for the bull to inflict any real damage.
When the picadors retire, the banderilleros emerge, each holding a pair of flowery stakes. As the bull is taunted with pink-and-gold capes, each banderillero plants his stakes elegantly into the bull’s neck, and then runs like hell to escape. They, too, are protected from real danger, hiding in wooden paddocks on the side of the arena.
By the time the matador enters the ring, the bull is already tired and weak. The dance with the matador is nonetheless the most beautiful part of the fight. The bull is usually still angry and dangerous all the way to the matador’s killing stroke. When that happens, the bull doesn’t usually die right away, but lies down dizzily before being finished off with a discreet coup de grâce. Then his carcass is dragged out of the ring by mules.
Since at least Hemingway, it’s been a commonplace that bullfighting is a tragic representation of human life, with the bull playing the part of humanity. This commonplace is true. Bullfighting is a beautiful display of the inevitability of death. The bull cannot avoid pain and extinction, but he still struggles proudly. So as spectators at a bullfight, human beings get to see their own ghastly fate acted out elaborately. Instead of being the victims of fate, this time they get to cheer her on for a change. This is one way of coming to terms with the harsh universe: you cannot escape her harshness, but you can treat it as something gleeful and resplendent for a few hours.
A poetic tragedy like the Iliad is something similar. It is one of the goriest and saddest poems in the Western canon. (That usually shocks first-time readers.) But its descriptions of pain and death are rendered in regular, noble hexameter verses, and you’re left with an odd impression of combined horror and aesthetic delight. In fact, the only two occasions I’ve had that feeling have been reading the Iliad in Greek, and standing in the bullring in Barcelona.
Now, a bullfight understood correctly is a truer representation of human suffering than most literary tragedies. Classical tragedies like Oedipus are closer to the popular misconception of a bullfight. Their heroes are felled by a single awful catastrophe, careening off the edge of life with an operatic yell. But the tragedy of a bullfight is slow and gradual. It probably involves just as much confusion and nausea for the bull as pain. And the bull’s pain comes more from an accumulation of little pricks than from a single blow. He tries to ward off each new blow, but only inflicts new pain on himself by doing so. He can’t really win, and nowadays he can’t even gore the horses.
A bullfight, like the Iliad, is a successful attempt to make that suffering into something exquisite. This, I propose, is what makes a bullfight immoral, if we’re to consider it immoral at all. It’s not that the bull dies per se: it’s probably more miserable for the animal to die in a slaughterhouse than in a bullring. It’s that suffering is distilled to its essence, and then made into something glorious. Suffering human beings have many good reasons for wanting to do this. But it still seems like an abuse of our dignity and power. Isn’t it forbidden to be glad and dignified next to suffering? Isn’t fear and disgust the only appropriate reaction? Maybe I’m speaking as a prejudiced Jew, horrified by the strangeness of uncircumcised gentiles. Nevertheless, my vote is against nihilist tragedy and in favor of zealous gentleness.