So when I was in Valencia for Fallas in 2003, the former Prince Spangly and I caught a bit of the bullfighting on the telly. I've always thought of it as highly morally repugnant. I daresay I need not explain why. I'm not a vegetarian, so it's not that I have a problem with people killing animals per se. Principally it's the fact of a) deriving enjoyment and b) doing so in a way which is clearly cruel which are the main problems.
Whilst I am not an animal rights fanatic, or even a person who consistently and rigidly privileges the rights of animals, I make an effort in my own small way. In the UK – where this is possible - I only buy meat which is free-range and has lived and died in the best possible conditions, with the quickest, least traumatic and most pain-free death it can possibly have. I have to say I'm not inflexible on this issue, I eat non-'ethical' meat in restaurants and over here it's more or less impossible to follow such a rule, though I buy organic when I can since it has usually had a better quality of life. I would never, for instance, buy battery eggs. Now, I am not claiming that this position has great moral consistency; I admire committed vegan non-leather wearing people, and I know that I could do much more than I do. But I do care about animal welfare. I think fundamentally I care a lot more about people, and given that we all have a limited amount of time and energy (and money) to devote to our pet 'causes,' that of animal rights is never going to be my top priority.
That said, I could never see an excuse for bullfighting. (Though they do eat the meat afterwards). Essentially, it's about deriving pleasure from watching someone else torture and kill an almost entirely wild animal. It's totally vicarious – you don't have the thrill of the chase, or any element of personal risk, which might form – however spurious – some kind of justification of your enjoyment. But after seeing a corrida on the telly in 2003 I found, to my surprise, that I was keen to go and see a fight in person, partly the better to make up my own mind.
Do you know how the fight works? Basically the main point, the chief excitement, is when the matador is alone in the ring with the bull, working it with a very small cape as close to his body as possible. The more he risks his life the better the spectacle, the greater the thrill. Come to think of it, this is pretty barbarous too. Not only are we, the viewers, enjoying the death of an animal, but we're getting off on the sight of a man risking death or permanent disability purely for our entertainment (and a sack-load of cash, fame, girls, etc. I digress.) This is quite problematic. However before the matador can take the bull on, one-to-one, the bull must be weakened, his head lowered a little. They do this in a variety of ways.
Picadors enter the ring on horseback and use their height and weight to drive a pike between the bull's shoulderblades, up to a depth of some 5 or 6 inches. This is a particularly vile and if the picador is "too vigorous" the crowd will boo him, it is considered unsporting to weaken the bull chiefly in this way – perhaps because so little risk is entailed to the man in question. Banderillos, at enormous personal risk, run up to the bull on foot, from the front, and skilfully plant two long darts into its shoulders, these are ornamented with the long colourful dangling ends:
Here the banderillo is about to plant his second pair of darts into the bull. The matador's assistants, equipped with these huge magenta and yellow capes, test out the bull's reactions. The matador watches to learn how the bull moves his head, gauging its speed and temperament. The assistants encourage it to move its head from side to side, working the daggers and darts deeper into its body, and tiring it out a little. By the time the bull is adjudged ready to be tackled by the matador alone, its flanks will be soaked with blood.
Finally the matador enters the ring equipped with a small scarlet cape and a flexible aluminium sword, which he uses to manipulate the cape. The bull is colourblind and indeed has very poor eyesight, it is attracted by movement rather than anything else. The skilled fighter can encourage the bull to circle him so closely that he can wrap his arm around its body. This part of the fight is where he entertains the crowd, he shows off his skill and courage – which are often astounding – and where finally he exhausts the bull. Here's El Juli:
Eventually he swaps the light sword for a proper slightly curved steel sword which with a leap and a flourish he must drive all the way into the bull's neck, in exactly the right spot which will cut its main artery. If he has done so correctly the bull dies almost immediately. If not, the nastiness is prolonged until eventually the bull is dispatched with a dagger. The placing of the sword is also one of the moments in which he is most likely to be gored since he must approach the bull from directly ahead and get right in close.
Depending on the skill of the matador, the crowd may request that he be awarded one of the bull's ears, as a trophy, or even two if he has been exceptionally brave. Of the 6 fights last week, one was a 1-ear fight (El Juli) and one a 2-ear fight (youngster Miguel Angel Perera, who was frankly brilliant). They parade the ears around to enormous applause.
One chap got slightly gored, though not enough to stop him carrying on. The bulls are ENORMOUS, the heaviest weighed no less than 645kg which is incredible. It was obvious that there were various subtleties and complexities which the crowd were cheering or whistling which were slightly lost on me. The body of the bull is removed and later eaten:
So, what did I think? Well…I really enjoyed it. There it is. It was in parts horrible, gory, certainly savage, and one of the party left almost in tears after about 10 minutes. Morally it remains as indefensible as ever I thought. But… it was exciting, fun, frightening, quite literally breath-taking at times (and also quite erotic, though that may have been chiefly due to the interface of skin-tight coral pink trousers with pert male buttocks). I have to say, I really wanted to hate it. That would have been a nice uncomplicated reaction wherein intellect and emotion coincided. Unfortunately I thought it was great. I do at least now understand why people want to go and see it, why it's so popular. I don't understand quite how to manage this in myself, the fact that I thought it was morally repugnant and yet enjoyable is a bit difficult for me. I don't know if I would ever go again – I hope not, I suppose. That is, I hope I would follow my moral sense not what might crudely be termed the pleasure instinct. It was on all accounts a learning experience, about myself, about human nature, and of course about Spain.