Sunday, October 13, 2013

Reflections On My Second Bullfight

     "The superiority...of the smiling hero over the frothing monster." 

     This summer I read Ian Gibson's biography of Federico García Lorca. In it, Gibson quotes from a letter Lorca wrote to the Italian writer Giovanni Papini. Lorca considered the bullfight an ancient ceremony, a "religious mystery" and "the public and solemn enactment of the victory of human virtue over the lower instincts...the superiority of the spirit over matter, of intelligence over instinct, of the smiling hero over the frothing monster." The bullfight, Lorca thought, was not a sport at all.
     Last year I went to my first bullfight after reading Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon, in which he too upheld the bullfight as as a tragedy rather than a sport. In fact, many writers and artist-types have thought highly of bullfighting. So, is it a brutal, reprehensible sport or a religious mystery, a triumph of humanity? Could it be both?
     The first bullfight I attended was a novillada, which pits less experienced bullfighters against slightly younger and smaller bulls. This year I went to a corrida, where ordained professionals dance with mature bulls. The afternoon had ups and downs. I find the hardest part to watch is when the bull gores the horse, nearly lifting it off the ground, leaving blood stains that show through the horse's protective padding. The fact that it takes so many people to kill the bull seems to detract from any sense of triumphant victory of man over bull. First the bull is let into the ring, run around by several banderilleros with capes, then the picador on horseback gores the back of the bull's neck with a lance, after which the banderilleros stab six sharp metal sticks into its neck. Only after this does the matador face the bull alone. Granted, the bull is still extremely dangerous and with one twist of his head could gravely injure the bullfighter. But the nobility of the sacrifice somehow seems lessened.
     Then there is the "public." The fans (and tourists) who attend the bullfight do not, for the most part, seem to consider the corrida sacred or spiritual. They shout obscenities, talk amongst themselves, and sometimes seem generally disinterested. This atmosphere does not lend itself well to the observance of a religious mystery. I imagine a mostly silent audience, completely involved in and fixed on the act before them, would better fulfill Lorca's poetic rendering of the corrida. Indeed, the audience sometimes seems more akin to the frothing monster than to the smiling hero.
     And finally there is the importance of "killing well", as Hemingway puts it. I don't believe I have ever seen a bull die well in the ring. I suppose it is the most difficult thing for the bullfighter to do. I thought it might happen last time I went, because by all accounts of the aficionados around me, and the entire rapt crowd, Manuel Jesús "El Cid" was working the bull flawlessly. Each pass drew robust shouts of olé from the crowd, and as he proceeded there was an energy in the air. It came close to the end. Someone next to me mumbled that El Cid must not try to kill too soon. Another hoped the bull would 'die well'. And so Manuel drew his sword, held it high in front of him, and thrust it between the horns. The sword didn't go in. The spell was broken and he knew he had come so close to triumph. After another pass he tried again. No good. And after a third, tortuous attempt, the bull fell. He was visibly upset that he had ruined such a good bull, that it had not died well. Even so, the crowd rebounded from the disappointment and urged him to make a pass around the ring so they could throw flowers, hats, jackets his way to honor such a great performance. Reluctantly, he did, but he knew very well that the victory had been marred.
     And so, after reflecting this past week, I am of the opinion that the theory of how a bullfight should be and how in practice it is carried out are two very different things. Certainly Lorca would agree that not all bullfights are as he describes them, but in fact only on rare occasions one might have moments of likeness. This is one reason why the practice of bullfighting is often abhorred and condemned by so many, yet others continue to dream of the smiling hero and uphold the ancient tradition based on the triumphal heights it could reach. At least in Lorca's case he created something beautiful out of such tragic events.

From Lorca's Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejillas, his friend and bullfighter who fell in the ring.

...Díle a la luna que venga,          ...Tell the moon to come out,
que no quiero ver la sangre          I don't want to see the blood
de Ignacio sobre la arena...           of Ignacio on the sand...

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