23 April 2013

The Culture of the Bullfight-- the Culture of a Catholic Society?

The other day I stumbled across an article on the corrida, or bullfight as most know it, here. I have had a great affinity for Spain and things Spanish for a long time, and the bullfight is no exception. This article, and a book I'm currently reading, got me thinking about the bullfight as a metaphor for Catholic culture.

Though forced to travel off-season on account of airfare costs for a family of 37, one of my favorite memories was being able to witness an excellent-- a real-- bullfight in a pueblito called Villamuelas, about 60 km south of Toledo in the middle of nowhere Castile-La Mancha. Wikipedia says that the town's population is 737, and I cannot doubt it. Though the bullfight season ends in October, some friends and I were wandering the streets of Toledo in November when we saw posters for a bullfight for charity that afternoon in Villamuelas, featuring the renowned matador Julián López, known as "El Juli".

El Juli was a popular up-and-comer then, and later became an internationally acclaimed matador. Like the corrida itself, he personifies the drama of life-- glory, danger, victory and tragedy. He was seriously gored twice, once in 2005 and most recently four days ago. The photos on this page are all of him-- the last one is of him being carried out of the plaza de toros four days ago. Like life, the corrida is serious business.

Ernest Hemingway, the most famous American aficionado of the bullfight, remarked that one could never tell how a person would react to the spectacle ahead of time. Grown men could go queasy while petite ladies developed a true passion for it.

However that may be, the corrida affected me profoundly, and to me the entirety of Spain, and also that of Catholic culture itself, is exhibited in it. From Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon:

Some one with English blood has written: "Life is real; life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal." And where did they bury him? And what became of the reality and the earnestness? The people of Castille have great common sense. They could not produce a poet who would write a line like that. They know death is the inescapable reality, the one thing any man may be sure of; the only security... They think a great deal about death and when they have a religion they have one which believes that life is much shorter than death. Having this feeling they take an intelligent interest in death and when they can see it being given, avoided, refused and accepted in the afternoon for the nominal price of admission they pay their money and go to the bull ring.

There is a ton of truth in that, though ironically coming from someone with English blood who later committed suicide. I found it absolutely true, and it fit my bullfight experience immediately.

After deciding while in Toledo to hit the bullfight 60 km away that started in an hour's time, we found a taxi driver willing to take us there. On the way, I negotiated the return fare and a plan for him to pick us up hours later in the middle of nowhere-- a plan I prayed to Our Blessed Mother that she would make work. We got to the town just at starting time, and the taxi fare took most of our ready cash. We approached the temporary bullring with some uncertainty, but the ticket taker with very few teeth took credit cards. This took some time, and as I entered the ring the kill of the first bull (there are six) was just taking place.

Imagine, the first sight I had of a bullfight, before I took my seat, was to stare at a bull, at eye level, with a sword in its heart. This bull stood there, blood dripping from its mouth, for what seemed like a full minute, as the crowd assumed a deathly silence. Nothing stirred and I was frozen in my steps. Then, suddenly, the bull simply fell over on its side and the crowd erupted.

Welcome to Villamuelas!

The rest of the corrida was enthralling, thrilling, and strangely compelling. Powerful and noble beasts would rage into the ring, full of strength. The dance of the picadores and banderilleros would tire, weaken and slow it, readying it for the matador. But don't think that the bull was no longer able to menace. Quite the contrary. The challenge of the matador, the acceptance by the animal, and the dance of death played out.

The audience cheered both, and woe to the matador who failed to respect the bull, either through cowardice, clumsiness or disdain. El Juli was magnificent, and the crowd-- particularly the ladies-- gave him his due. He was skillful and in command. On the opposite end of the scale, there was one matador the crowd more or less jeered (I was informed by the man next to me that he was Mexican, which he thought was enough explanation for the rough treatment). He tried one after another reckless and dangerous pose in order to win the crowd. It had some good effect until the bull reminded him of reality by goring his chest and then thrusting one of its horns into his ear. After every kill, the bull was taken out of the ring with great fanfare.

Lest you complain of animal cruelty, consider this: these bulls lead a full life, are very well treated, are not tightly confined, and face only a fifteen minute contest, at the end of which they are killed quickly. Compare that to the life of the hamburger you ate for lunch yesterday.

It is hard to find our place in the metaphor sometimes. Am I facing the dangers of life like the skillful matador, respecting danger and using my experience to overcome it well, relying on my training, being brave but not foolhardy? Am I playing to the crowd with reckless bravado, sure to get gored? Maybe I'm in the background, jabbing the danger at the back end of a long lance, allowing my horse to take the punishment. Maybe I am a banderillero fighting the enemy so that another may defeat it and get the glory. Then again, am I just a passive spectator of life, watching as others do the dirty work, moved perhaps but powerless to engage? Maybe I'm a person "with English blood" who is repulsed by the reality of life?

Or, maybe, just maybe, I will be forced to be the bull-- a soft and easy life, until the end, when I must submit to my own inevitable martyrdom in the arena. A scenario every Catholic today might consider, no?

I'm pretty far afield now, but remember that article I mentioned at the top of the post? An excerpt:

My girlfriend, a recent convert but still possessed of strong doubts about the activity, asked what it was among the gold and gore that draws me back to the plaza de toros time and time again. I replied that it was the absolute reality of the corrida. As an art form, it represents man’s struggle with death and how it should be best faced, which is with a striking and elegant defiance. It represents a man standing alone on the sand with an animal intent on killing him. My first instructor in how to torear, the matador Juan José Padilla, almost joined their ranks two years ago when a bull removed his eye and a chunk of his skull. He was back in the ring five months later, sans depth perception, a triumphant return...

Whatever one thinks of the ethics of injuring and killing an animal as part of a public spectacle—I find it no less reprehensible than killing one at a third the age and after a far worse life for meat I do not medically need to eat—there is honor and glamour in earning your status and fortune by dancing with death.

This is why it stands in such stark contrast to what passes for honor and glamour at home in Great Britain. I just attended the book launch of an acquaintance who published his memoirs at the ripe old age of 26. It is more accurately described as a travelogue of his sexual adventures, something made clear by its title Laid in Chelsea. It is currently at number three on the Sunday Times bestseller list. The reason for this literary success is because the author, Ollie Locke, is famous for being in a reality television show called Made in Chelsea.

The fact that having your life filmed and broadcast, and then writing about your carnal exploits, can bring wealth and glory sums up so much that is wrong with modern Britain, a generalization that extends to our Saxon cousins in the US. Spain may be financially bankrupt, but at least it isn’t morally so.

...The British and American inability to distinguish between them is at the heart of our ethical and aesthetic decline.

One of the commenters to the article, commenting on the moral/financial bankruptcy point, went so far as to phrase it a bit stridently, that this was "the difference between a culture steeped in Roman Catholic traditions and one whose secularist values constitute the inevitable bequest of Protestant heresy."

I don't know. Maybe so-called 'reality television' is Henry VIII's greatest legacy. Maybe that's a stretch. What I do know is that there is more reality in the bullfight than in any reality television show. And reality is Catholic, plain and simple.

To end the travelogue, our loyal cabbie was there to pick us up in the Castillian dusk. We struck up a conversation about the corrida and about Spain. The talk led to the faith, as it often seems to do. He was Catholic, but in his own words did not practice the faith "as well as [he] used to". We chatted pleasantly, considering the poverty of my Spanish. When we arrived in Toledo I gave him my rosary that had been blessed by Cardinal Rigali. It was a wrench to give it, but it felt right.

After all, it was a fair bargain. I gave him a rosary, and he gave me the corrida.


Jane Chantal said...

Well, just a darned minute. With regard to the Hemingway quote:

“Some one with English blood has written: "Life is real; life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal." And where did they bury him? And what became of the reality and the earnestness? The people of Castille have great common sense. They could not produce a poet who would write a line like that.”

Monsieur Hemingway can tell his commonsensical Castillian poets that from our Faith's point of view, the guy with the English blood has it exactly right: Life IS real. Life IS earnest. And the grave ISN’T its goal.

Dusty said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kramer said...

These pretzels are making me thirsty.

Anonymous said...

That was a lovely, lovely story.
I wonder if I could give my rosary beads away ----at least it kept you from getting too attached to them.
Mr. Taxi DID need them more than you did and you knew where to get another set. I hope that anyone who reads this might say a prayer for that man.
You did your part and then trusted Our Lady to do the rest!


Jane Chantal said...

It is, of course, evident that when Hemingway goes on to write "They think a great deal about death and when they have a religion they have one which believes that life is much shorter than death” he is -– weirdly -- using the word “death” to indicate eternal life. He shrinks from saying “eternal life” when that is what he means, and then seems to contradict himself: “Having this feeling they take an intelligent interest in death and when they can see it being given, avoided, refused and accepted in the afternoon for the nominal price of admission they pay their money and go to the bull ring.”

I get that people are thrilled by duels to the death. That has been amply demonstrated throughout history. What I don’t get is how enjoying bullfights demonstrates an intelligent interest in life after death as exemplified by the Resurrection. And if it doesn’t demonstrate that, where is the dignity with which Hemingway seems -- albeit incoherently -- to be investing it?

I’m not claiming to be better than anyone else, btw. I love me some barbecue ribs and burgers, and have cheered my son on to victory in Mixed Martial Arts cage fights. I just don't see how watching a previously well-treated bull being tortured and killed by physically courageous men resonates with theological significance for the Christian.

I admit it: I'm hopeless.

Rory said...

I am not sure what to say. I haven't an opinion yet, but I find the story of your experience compelling. I am going to talk to my Catholic friends about this.

A Spaniard named Vicente Blasco Ibanez wrote Blood and Sand, which tells a darker side of the bullfight. As with your story, it left me undecided.

I am very drawn to competitions involving violence. I am sure I would like it. I am just not sure I should. Maybe where boxing and mixed martial arts are said by some good Catholics to fail morally, it is because they are man vs. man. If that were the case, perhaps the bullfight succeeds morally because it is man vs. animal?

Thanks for the thought provoking post Tim. Very good.


Methodist Jim said...

Since this fight, I hadn't followed up on El Juli's career. I'm impressed that you did. And, I'll say a prayer for his health.

The first time that I visited Spain, I had no desire to see a bullfight. I would've said "no" to free tickets. I fell in love with Spain on that trip, though, and the second time I was ready and enthusiastic to go. I'm so glad I did. Watching, I understood. I appreciated. But to this day I can't correctly/rightly/justly explain it to anyone who hasn't experienced a bullfight in person. Words and pictures just can't do it.

Because I know that no description can fully convey to the uninitiated precisely what a bullfight is, I'll merely try to convince others to keep an open mind and withhold judgment. It is anyone's prerogative, of course, to judge in ignorance but condemnation of bullfighting those who've never been reminds me of one of my children claiming not to like food on his plate, though he's never tasted it.

Timman . . . when do you want to go again? I'm in.

thetimman said...


I'm in as soon as I can responsibly go. But any bullfight would have to come on the way to Santiago by foot. Pamplona? Leon? Or by the via Plata in Salamanca? You up for a long walk?


I think you might mistake Hemingway. I took the passage to mean that anyone should live life with his death in view. We will stand before our Maker. Death lasting longer than life I took simply to mean eternity.


You would get it at once, or not. Bullfighting is not condemned by the church, and I don't see it as torturing the animal. But feel free to disagree.

Methodist Jim said...

No long walking for me, but I'll meet you in the grandstands.

Wisdom said...

You mess with the bull, you get the horns.

long pants said...

Just because something is not explicitly "condemned" by the church doesn't mean it's OK to do. The church doesn't condemn cockfighting, dogfighting, throwing a bag of kittens in the river or beating a dog to death because it peed on the carpet...but we know these things are wrong.

And while it may not be a specific enough condemnation to satisfy our letter-of-the-law bretheren, the church does weigh in here. Look at catechism numbers 2415-2418. These should give any fan of bullfighting reason to pause and consider the licitness of such a spectacle.

Rory said...

Long Pants, hi.

I have already admitted to reticence. I have read an entire book against the subject. In my opinion, Timman's experience and the heritage of Catholic Spain may also give any "non-fan of bullfighting reason to pause and consider the licitness of such a spectacle."

2418 of the Catechism reads: "It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly." I share a concern and I consider this problem. But I doubt that anyone who appreciates the bullfight would consider the suffering or death "needless".

I would be interested in any censures from the Spanish bishops which have been made in the last few centuries. If the death of an animal provides healthy Catholic leisure, as I think Tim is arguing, the death of the animal is in no way in violation of the Catechism.



thetimman said...

Long Pants,

Your basic point that non-condemnation does not equal approval is sound. I mentioned it here because bullfighting was condemned in the past and then the condemnation was explicitly lifted-- so it seems like there was some hierarchical thought on the subject. I'll have to check and find links on both.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, Timman, this blog post is IMHO your finest bit of writing on the site ever. I don't get the whole bull-fighting thing - I'm mostly agnostic on it, kinda like I am on fantasy football - but that didn't stop me from appreciating the writing.

SLPS Parent

thetimman said...

Thanks, sir.

Stan Metheny said...

In recent years, we have spent our visits to Spain the in the north. But your excellent posting took me back to earlier visits to Toledo and to afternoons in the corrida in Madrid and Sevilla. To echo Methodist Jim, you have to be there to understand. Thank you.