The beginning of Iberian spring… The temples open their altars. Men sacrifice the first bulls, brave and aggressive bulls that will never eat the grass of misty meadows, hear the bells on the necks of their sleepy cows or have the pleasure of watching their calves playing in the green afternoons.
Sunlight, sand and an old ritual “paso doble”… The crazy and incredible courage of an animal whose huge power exceeds its physical size, the male elegance of a brave torero, previously known as a matador, incredible nobility of both – Man and Beast. Ancient gods demand that man too, be sacrificed. Each year the best bullfighters fall, torn apart by the sharp monstrous horns of bulls, which for one terrible moment exchange their role as victims for that of killers, and obey their secret instinct or an unknown law which transforms the gallant and vulnerable fighter into another immortal and unassailable legend.
A las cinco de la tarde… At five in the afternoon…. Garcia Lorca begins mourning the death of a bullfighter named Ignacio Sanches Mejias along with a chain of glorious deaths of Spaniards sacrificed by a dark religion which almost nobody can understand but so many admire. ´It burns like a fire, ambitionless bravura of Spain, playing with death, irrational force that cannot be explained´.
Today, death and wounds for both Torero and Bull is a price that has to be paid in any bullring, great or small. Real bullfighters cannot live without bulls. The famous Juan Belmonte, considered by some to be the greatest torero of all time, put a gun to his head at the age of 70 when he couldn’t fight any more. It must be one of the toughest professions in the world, created by the Spanish and for the Spanish. ´The people of Spain take an intelligent interest in death and when they see it being given, avoided, refused and accepted in the afternoon for a nominal price of admission – they pay their money and go to the bullring´, Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon, probably the most authentic portrayal of Spain you could ever read.
Whatever people feel about bullfighting, you can’t come to Spain and avoid it. It is about many things – performance, bravery, self-control, death and national character. It is beautiful but at the same time bloody and shocking.
People always react in one of two ways when they hear you enjoy bullfighting – either with fascination or disgust. I have never known anyone to react with indifference or boredom. Living in the country of flamenco and corrida, these two deep passions blessed by duende spirit, I have to admit that it is almost impossible for anyone from a northern country to watch bullfight without moments of embarrassment or guilt. Some people will never appreciate the fact that the danger can seduce as much as the beauty, or that bravery, skills and a sword against incalculable force can make the blood boil.
Once in Malaga I met a well-known modern English artist Daniel, a man of style and class. We spoke about beautiful Spain, its art, food and lifestyle that we found fascinating. Hemingway appeared to be the favourite writer for both of us. The greatest aficionado and the author of remarkable Fiesta soon divided us into pro- and anti- bullfighting camps.
Daniel agreed that it was a culturally important tradition and a fully developed art form as painting, dancing or music, while at the same time he insisted that there was a difference between the death on the arena and the one in the slaughterhouse. It is! The wonderfully noble wild bulls will never go the way of the ordinary cows. Toro Bravo, who owes its very existence today to the corrida, has a different life, much longer and happier than any cow; and at the end of it he is better off dying on the point of a torero´s sword than in the matadero.
Opposition to bullfighting is fierce, long-standing and passionate. In 1567, over two centuries before the Age of Enlightenment, and half a century before the first witches were executed in Salem, and half a century after Galileo Galilei stood before the Roman Inquisition having proven that the earth orbits the sun, Pope Pius issues a papal bull deriding bullfighting as a ´base spectacles of the Devil´ and threatened its promoters with excommunication. In 1940, Pope Pius XII refused to meet a delegation of bullfighters. Many countries ban bullfighting and even regions of Spain. In 1991, the Canaries became the first autonomous region of Spain to ban bullfighting. But who will argue that the Canarians are a very special ethnic group with its Guanche roots, the strong influence of Cuba and Venezuela and the immigrants included Portuguese, Italians, Catalans, Basques and Flemings?
In 2010, the parliament of Catalonia, with its strong separatist movement, outlawed the centuries-old tradition. Many Spanish people think it has more to do with Catalonia’s drive to cut Madrid’s political influence than with the protection of animals. ´It’s a real shame; it’s been our national festival forever, said one of my friends from Barcelona. – People don’t have to go to the bullring. If they don’t like animals to die they better not eat meat and wear leather clothes.´ Deep interest towards bullfighting is largely relegated to the Southern provinces of Spain and the capital.
I have noticed that opposition almost always comes from people who have never seen a bullfight or are not familiar with the rules of it. You can’t make a judgment without knowing what you are speaking about. Ernest Hemingway was one of non-Spaniards acquiring encyclopaedic knowledge of corrida. He mentioned that you have to be fully prepared to watch and understand it. Reading the hysterical articles of some animal rights advocates next to “Driving in Andalusia” or “Transfer money into Spain” won’t help.
It is understandable why the green activists attack ladies in furs, not the rock-n-roll fans or Harley’s wild hogs in leather. Some of these activists epitomise hypocrisy by their cruelty to people, using the methods of terrorists in some cases, supposedly in the defence of animals. Unlike the bullfighter, who is filled with love, these people are filled with hate. And why, for example, do they seldom speak about the suffering of chickens spending their miserable short lives in a small cage?
I love animals, write about nature, have got 5 dogs and rescued at least 30 more. But I feel sorry for those who are not able to enjoy the highly ritualized beautiful spectacle, to have goose bumps when the trumpet sound signals faena, the final phase of the bullfight. Feeling toreros’ emotional connection with the crowd transmitted through the bulls is very special, and the passionate beauty of Goyesca in Ronda is intoxicating.
For a non-Spaniard, it is a complex tradition to understand or accept – both in physical and moral terms. As one breeder and ex-torero said ´What do people in New York or London office know about the love and care that goes into raising bulls to be killed…and the equal amount of care that goes into killing them on the ring? We know everything about the bulls. We live with them and for them´.
To fight or not to fight – this is the choice that any bull has got from the moment of his arrival to the arena. Most of the Toro Bravo bulls instinctively choose to die fighting. The bravest is granted an indulto, his life is spared. He leaves the ring alive and returns to the ranch where he came from. He will become a stud bull for the rest of his glorious life.
I have to admit that there is a moment of corrida when I always close my eyes – when the picadores enter the ring on horseback and one stabs the mound of muscle in the back of the bull’s neck. Although this seems cruel, doing so lowers the animal’s blood pressure so that it does not have a heart attack and weakens its massive head and neck muscles. No one has a chance without this moment – neither a bull nor a man.
But it is all about the other moment, the last minutes of corrida that require considerable skill and discipline, not to mention a certain amount of raw courage, and for this reason it is known as el momento de la verdad – the moment of truth.
One can never fully understand the main parts of Spanish identity without an insight into this ancient tradition – meeting people who consider a dance with death being a part of life. It goes without saying that the toreros are stylish, sporty and good-looking. Since their childhood most of them are sure this is the only thing they can do with their life. The best of them know something that we don’t. Is it connected with the moment of truth? I don’t know. All the toreros have one thing in common – they are very passionate. Bullfighting cannot be done without passion. Technique is not enough to put the crowd on its feet in appreciation.
Blood on the sand, adrenaline in the air… What will replace the prohibited passion? Barcelona’s bullrings are turning into a shopping area with a line of sweet smelling boutiques selling shorts and candies.
What comes next? Shall we delete Mundo Taurino website, close the famous schools of bullfighting, use the other Spanish arenas for pop concerts or commercial centres, and burn the Bullfight Magazines as Himmler, the famous Nazi, offered after 10 minutes of watching a corrida in 1940? We can go even further by putting a gun machine between the horns of the bulls as it was suggested by the poet of the Soviet Revolution Vladimir Mayakovsky.
In other words let’s forget the history, culture and traditions that survived centuries! San Fermin corrida in Pamplona – there is no common sense in it! Las Fallas festivities in Valencia – the fire is dangerous for people and trees! Sardines season – the fish is suffering on the skewer! No to Malaga feria – drinking continues well past dawn! Stop Semana Santa because men who carry processional thrones through the streets feel so much pain in their bodies that after the dramatic spectacle can’t go to work for days! Shall we delete all the highlights of the Spanish year, all the exclamation points on the social calendar, fiestas to live for and to die for, when the sleepy villages awake and the houses, hotels and hearts are full?
We cannot do it without changing Spaniards themselves because behind the Spanish instinct for pleasure there is always a kind of melancholy, a deep understanding of the tragic. The line between laughter and despair is very conditional, each informing the other that life is short – so enjoy it.
One of the simplest and the most fundamental things of all is death – and bullfighting is literally a dance with death. Spain does have common sense but it differs from the common sense of non-Spaniard people. Traditional in Spain is not a tourist cliché like in many other countries of the world; it really means something close to the spirit of the country that has a special enigmatic character, sensual and sorrowful, and it lies in the lifestyle, the rituals around the bullfighting, flamenco, siesta, conversing over tapas in the bodegas that are impossible to pass by without feeling thirsty. To witness a bullfight might not necessarily mean to admire it, but it provides an insight into this Spanish tradition and makes parts of Spanish identity easier to understand.
Some people think that bullfight could be much nicer without the tragedy – the death of the bull. I have seen a bullfight in Portugal once. You can give it different names – a game, a performance, a sport event but it just a shadow of something real, genuine, much more powerful than this spectacle with no end. And by the way there is the end – a bull is killed anyway by a professional butcher, away from the audience’s sight. The moment of death in a bullfight is as immediate as the death of an animal in any slaughterhouse or on any farm or homestead where cared-for animals are routinely killed for food.
A true aficionado like Hemingway will stand for tragedy. There is more to it than death, something that justifies ritualistic aspect of the ancient performing act. Great Spanish artists, like Goya, El Greco, Zurbarán, Picasso and Dalí, reflected tragedy on their canvases.
European critics find it almost depressing to write about tragedies in Spanish literature. But anyone who has read even a small portion of Spanish literature knows that the novels, poetry and drama of various Hispanic authors are filled with tragedy; they either begin or end tragically and better are tragic all the way – poetry of Garcia Lorca, the books of Miguel Cervantes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ famous Cien Años de Soledad, Rodolfo Usigli’s Corona de Sombra…The best and the most beautiful flamenco dancers marry the bullfighters; they share not only passion but a sense of tragedy of the whole thing.
Bullfighting is a metaphor for life. In other words without death bullfighting in Spain means nothing. And there is no need to speak about moral ethical aspect of it. Tragedy is in life and ignoring it doesn’t mean it disappears. Hemingway called the bullfight ´moral, because it gives a feeling of life and death and mortality´.
And maybe it is our own moment of truth…