by Hugh Gilmore
I stated earlier that in the past five years I’ve gone in and out of an enchantment with bullfighting. I began as an enthusiast for all things Spanish, largely because I got carried away by Bizet’s “Carmen” and wanted to research for a possible novel, what it might be like to think like a matador.
I even joined two clubs devoted to bullfighting. I’ve since ended my membership in the Club Torino of London, but have kept my association with the Taurine Bibliophiles of America (TBA from here on).
The TBA intends to publish an anthology of personal accounts by members that will tell the bullfighting world about American aficionados, stressing how they developed their interest in tauromachy and how they go about pursuing their interests. Having been invited to contribute, I started pulling together my thoughts.
Certainly I came at the subject from a different angle than the average member – the desire to write a spin-off novel about the operatic characters Carmen, Don Jose, and Escamillo – so I thought my story might make an interesting addition to the forthcoming book.
As I developed this essay, however, I realized where it was leading: a public disavowal of bullfighting and my diminished fervor for it. That doesn’t seem very polite, but the editor of the book tells me that all opinions and personal histories are welcome, so I’ve gone ahead and written my story.
So far in this series for the Local, I’ve told of how and why I became a bullfighting aficionado, but only today do I offer my reasons for thinking that bullfighting should be banned – universally.
Here goes. Ultimately, the unmaking of this aficionado happened when I realized this: A ritual’s being performed with bravery and grace, in an aesthetic and colorful fashion, does not mean it signifies anything other than what meets the eye and ear – in this case, butchery.
A bullfight is an event meant to be evaluated by aesthetic criteria and performed for a public audience. If a man (or woman, of course) simply wanted to single-handedly kill a bull, he could go off to a meadow and try his hand. Chances are, his actions would seem bizarre if he chose to do them while wearing an elaborate, colorful costume and arranged for music to be played.
Perhaps such scenes have taken place somewhere. If they did, I would expect that the man had an obligation to eat the bull afterwards. Otherwise, he’d simply be killing a highly-evolved, complex mammal just because he wanted to see if he could. Or perhaps because he had a psychopathic compulsion he needed to act out.
But, let’s say, his motive was hunger, or the hunger of others. I would expect that the animal should be killed in the quickest and least painful way possible, within the common-sense guidelines of the man’s not taking undue risks.
And there you bang against the first wall: If one insists on using a sword to kill the bull, it is probably impossible to bring a fresh bull into a meadow, have it charge, and dispatch it with one thrust. The animal is simply too fast, quick, and strong to be “conquered” that way.
If one insists that only a single sword thrust will prove the point, then it will be necessary to wear the bull down first. It must be exhausted to the point where it will stand still before the man and give him time to line up his steel blade.
Let’s add another layer of complexity: the time element. If one had all afternoon, or all of a day, to taunt and then dodge the bull, the contest could go on until the bull gave up. It would take a very resilient man, who literally had more endurance than a bull, but it probably could be done.
But a bullfight is an afternoon’s paid entertainment, in an arena, before a crowd. And the sight of a man killing a large animal is not sufficiently entertaining to draw a full house. The killing must be competitive: Which of three matadors kills “best”? Each matador gets two bulls to work with. Because it is an entertainment, it must begin and end within a certain span of time, a total, let’s say of about two to three hours. It works out in practice to being about fifteen minutes per individual contest per bull.
Because the entire process, from the entrance of the bull to its death, has to be encompassed in about 15 to 20 minutes, some enhancement of the tiring process is necessary. I’m referring, of course, to the stages requiring picadors and banderilleros, members of the matador’s team whose job it is to injure the bull by stabbing its neck and shoulder muscles and to cause the bull to lose enough blood to be weakened.
In short, the only way a man can kill a bull with a single sword thrust (the ideal) is to first put it through an enraging, then enervating, process that causes great pain and often great terror to the animal. The so-called “moment of truth” arrives when the bull is so stupefied it stands still for the matador.
If this ritualistic slaughter of an animal were performed but one time in the course of my lifetime, I might pause and wonder if something special was going on. But it is not. There are, on average, six contests per corrida and thousands of corridas performed internationally each year.
To read a matador’s memoir is always to read of his physical weariness as he dashes from one town to the next all through the season. And in a few cases – none ever so eloquently as in Juan Belmonte’s “Killer of Bulls” – these memoirs also describe how spirit-killing the whole process of killing large, “brave,” animals is when it’s done in great numbers, in every case pretending the kill has great spiritual and aesthetic significance.
Let’s face it, bullfighting is a business based on putting asses in seats, a form of show business, performed with the same affected flourishes used by circus performers. Only, the show requires the slow, incremental, and painful torture of a large, dumb animal prior to its death.
If not for that requirement I would still love La Fiesta Brava, perhaps even more than I did when I first began to learn about it. Now I see it as on a level with dog-or-cock fighting. Except it’s usually about four-against-one, with the four permitted to have hard, sharp weapons, a larger brain, and a few centuries worth of culturally accumulated know-how pitted against an animal that is fighting this kind of fight for the first and only time it ever will.
I’m always reminded of the old saw: “The boys throw stones at the frog in jest; the frog dies in earnest.”
Only the men have entered the arena voluntarily.
Note: Hugh Gilmore’s new romance/adventure novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour,” has been climbing the sales charts in recent weeks. It’s available now in Kindle format and should be available in paperback in about two weeks.