Saturday, 24 March 2007

Corrida (warning: bullfight pictures)

Some people reading this may not like what I have to say here, or in particular not want to see the photos, so if you think you might not like to see either, then look away now as they used to see on the Saturday teatime news. It's perfectly fair enough if you feel that way, though I'm not going to apologise for myself. Not on my own blog, anyway, I do enough of that in real life. Hehe. Go and look at the much nicer pics in the next post down instead.

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.
Rightly, some people have said that this makes little sense: do you need to go and watch a fox hunt to know it's wrong? asked a friend. You don't need to visit a battery farm to think it's disgusting. But the difference is, a bullfight is entirely for spectacle. Fox hunters are chiefly enjoying the chase, the break-neck horse ride through the countryside. Bullfight aficionados are there solely as spectators, going to watch and observe is the entire point. Also, despite many arguments to the contrary, foxhunting has always been an elite pursuit, not a mass entertainment. The corrida by contrast is an incredibly popular event which attracts, to the best of my knowledge, Spaniards of all ages and classes. And, unless we are going to make a sweeping statement along the lines of 'the Spanish are all barbarous savages' I wanted to try to understand what it was that was attractive. It's not just about watching an animal be killed. Otherwise they'd all head off down the local slaughterhouse at the weekend. So what is it that makes the corrida attractive to so many people as a spectacle? What could possibly be so interesting, exciting, fun, appealing, who knows what the right word is – that people dedicate so much time and money to something which seems to us so fundamentally unacceptable? I have read the excellent "On Bullfighting" by A. L. Kennedy, which I strongly commend to you if you've never read it, but these questions remained.
So on Sunday 18 March off we went. Tickets were €45 for the shady part of the ring (much cheaper in the sun) but we were paying so much because during Fallas they put on the best quality bulls and the best fighters. Chief draw was El Juli, a young up and coming Toreador, still in his very early twenties but already a big star. The corrida features three fighters who fight two bulls each – 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 - so 6 bulls in total, and it lasts about 2 ½ hours. The bullring was full. We estimated that it seats about 10,000, maybe a few more.

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.


Pat said...

While the emotions behind entertainment like Corrida may be horrifying and morally deficient, the emotions you felt and the emotions others feel watching it are human emotions. If outlets for these emotions like Corrida weren't around I feel that some people would search for other ways to experience these human emotions, perhaps substance abuse, crime or killing policemen outside football matches. I guess i can justify to myself as the lesser of two possible evils and that its a human thing you feel so to eradicate them is to eradicate a part of humanity.

Patrick Porter said...

if I was a bull, I might rather go down in the cruel majesty of the arena, than in being chopped up and turned into a burger.

claude said...

Cruel majesty! Oh PP, you will ever be a conservative. Alas, there is nothing useful in honour, and nothing pragmatic in the uselessness of spectacle. When the revolution comes, cold-hearted bastard left wingers like me will enumerate each joy you hold dear and then make it efficacious. Everything you treasure we'll functionalise until you won't smile except when you need to.

(Of course, we will do this laughing all the while. I hope you are well.)

Much love. (If it weren't so inefficient...)

claude said...

That which said.

I have to admire your honesty here. But I am going to be slightly obnoxious because I think that this raises points important enough to be worth the abrasion. And all my comments must be prefaced by my disclaimer that I have never seen a bullfight. For some this is a disqualifier to comment whilst to others, perhaps, it is irrelevant.


Clifford Geertz’s 1975ish On Balinese Cockfighting [sic] gives an interesting sociological/anthropological examination of the parallel practice in Bali (and surrounding islands). The conclusion that he comes to is that the cockfight functions principally as a mode in which the Balinese tell themselves stories about themselves. Through the cockfight (and interestingly in Bali the word for the cock carries exactly the same fertility and polysemy – a man’s cock identifies with his cock (both ways) – as it would or does in English) the Balinese iterate and reiterate social hierarchies.

Geertz’s account is far from immune to the effects of the phenomenon that it describes: he gets excited and involved and almost invested. (In this way it perhaps laid the way for books like Castel di Sangro which use a pseudo-sociological/ ‘investigative’ stance to authorise both their analytical passages and their deviations from analysis into encomium or pizza or general enactments of provincial lunacy.) Geertz does still manage to take apart which parts of the cockfight serve which functions – what the betting does, how cock-grooming works, how the cocks are treated &c &c – and in these few regards especially (from what I’ve heard) Spain and Bali are quite close. Cocks are groomed and tended to but not tamed. They are prized very highly indeed but never domesticated. There is for example so such thing as a live ex-fighting cock.

But the difference between the two forms is that in Bali, one man’s cock fights another. Whereas in Spain this isn’t the case. In Bali men fight against each other vicariously, through their cocks. In Spain the toreadors don’t compete against each other. They compete with each other. This is, I think, a crucial difference. A bullfight is “entirely for spectacle”. A cockfight is a tool of social mobility/stability. It is a spectacle, to be sure. But it is socially functional. (Or, if you were Pierre, functionally social.)

Commenter Pat says that though you felt these emotions they are nonetheless human emotions and accordingly shouldn’t be disparaged. You make a similar gesture: “I think I fundamentally care a lot more about people”. I stand with you on a lot of what you say about animal welfare, but I disagree (as you know) on humanitarianism. I don’t think that it’s defensible to support humanitarian charities – people are always going to look out for the human as long as they feel empathy. And the flipside of this is that people will also always feel cruelty – there is happily no scarcity in emotion. So I don’t think that this defence really carries.

What really worries me about the bullfight is its uselessness. Don’t get me wrong: any literature grad student will make the case for uselessness (and make it and make it). And I’m not about to get on the case of sport, either – sport is wonderful.

But if the bullfight is spectacle, if the bullfight is basically art (And there are many elements of the bullfight that seem to be artistic – the colour-blind bull is flattered with gaudiness, and tasselled darts, and flourish and gesture) then (and I’m sorry to be so pretentious here) it doesn’t seem to be a kind of art that I could get behind. What kind of art teaches only that murderousness and violence are enjoyable?

Now yes, I could just as well be writing against Tarantino here. Except that in Reservoir Dogs nobody actually dies. Sophie Marceau actually makes it through Kill Bill intact. Whereas after a bullfight (note: not a toreadorfight; the bull is the only one who fights all the way through) a bull weighing over half a metric ton dies.

And if the bull simply died – if the toreador and the bull fought and flourish and stabbed and gored until one of them couldn’t move – then even that would be, well, ok. But that isn’t how it goes. As you observe, an even fight (whatever that might be) is not permitted to occur. And I’m pleased to see that the answer to my rant lies in your post. This is “vile”. Yes, it is. It’s the ‘softening’.

And I can see how this would be exciting, I really can. If the bull were so nearly wild then watching the toreador learn the bull and then outwit it would be thrilling. But Spain does not have a monopoly on this kind of entertainment, on unpredictable battles of strength and wit. So what disturbs me and what remains is the staggering pointlessness of the spectacle.

What does England have that fulfils the same function as the bullfight? Because we surely have found some way to iterate our passions that doesn’t involve this staged, faked cruelty. Maybe this is the most frightening thing about the bullfight – that it tells us that we are telling ourselves the same cruel story somewhere in our public sphere a different way. But however we do it, it isn’t through the ritualised slaughter of a huge wild animal in an arena of thousands.

But thank you, though. I haven’t thought about this for ages. (Last I did, I was pro-bullfighting: as a C/conservative child I felt fearful for the continuance of all traditions.) I don’t mean to write against you, either, in the slightest. You totally acknowledge the problems of what you say. I’m just exploring those problems, that’s all.

claude said...

And you could well say that I still haven't thought about it much. I know I didn't answer pat's idea that cutting off this hydra's head makes others appear - hooliganism, for example. I don't believe, I suppose, that violence is intrinsically necessary to humanity.

I'm barely quantitatively different from anyone, let alone qualitatively different. And really, whether I *want* violence (I don't. I want to flee, largely.) is irrelevant. Just because we're accustomed to different formulations of violence will never remove the moral imperative not to participate in it. I know I'm making the immature absolutist's case here. But I hope it isn't so immature to try to apply that case at least to mitigate violence wherever you find it.

Pat said...

I know this is probably stretching it a bit, but a big problem people has is that the audience to these things are getting some sort of voyeuristic pleasure out of the pain and suffering of the animal. However, when Totti broke his ankle just over a year ago how many times did you see it in slow motion on the news? How many times did you change the channel in disgust? How many letters did you write to the producers of the show saying that it was morally reprehensible to show poor defensless Totti being ruthlessly hacked at?

Its also strange that we as humans can feel empathy for an animal that is suffering, but do animals feel sorry if they see one of its species mauling a human? if they dont does that justify our 'cruelty' to them?

punk said...

la corrida a mio avviso
รจ uno spettacolo crudele
anche qua c'erano le corride prima che cadesse il regime borbonico
ma non ha mai avuto successo come in spagna e in altri paesi ex colonie spagnole.

Patrick Porter said...


the ritual binds together a community, re-enacts the cosmic drama of man, animal, combat and death, gives the beast an outside chance of goring its enemy, and gives everyone a bloody good afternoon into the bargain. Immoral? Probably. Useless? I beg to differ.

Spangly Princess said...

I thought this might get some responses, funnily enough!m Lots of thoughtprovoking stuff here and I might take my prerogative as pblomistress to post about it again to respond to your various interesting points, in a day or two when a couple of other usual suspects have had a chance to comment. I have a few things to add which I left out of my original post on account of length, since I wanted to provide a detailed description in the first instance.

I will limit myself to observing that whn the revolution comes, Claude, you and I will be up against the wall, no?

TrentToffee said...

I just had to read the post, and I have to say yuk !

I'd like to meet El Juli and give the Cunt a proper fight.

I'm with the Bull all the way. How quaintly British of me.

Manolete-je said...

Interesting reading! Many interesting points- pro and con. I'll have to cogitate a bit on them, and get back to you.
I'm an avid "toreo" aficionado, however, and have been since I was about 8 years of age. I wanted to be a "torero" (vs toreador). I should have done it. I enjoy a corrida. It's not a question of the "toro's" death or not. (When the animal is between 4 to 6 years of age it will be sent to the slaughter house for the joy of steak eaters. If it's selected for breeding, then it will be a stud til just over 6 years of age. Otherwise they get old or sick and die. In many cases, the toros selected for the ring do live a little longer than the ones sent to slaughter. In the ring, as some have said, the bull has a "fighting" chance- as some are pardoned and sent back to the ranch for breeding.
In anycase, I'm glad you liked it.
I have always enjoyed toreo, because for me it's fun, exhilirating, and emotional. It is art and spectacle, and more, for me; without over analysis. Any sport can be found, in the long run, to be morally deficient, and in some cases cruel. For, in general, anything that a man touches, is, and can be, vain, cruel, and violent.

mark said...

A few points, in no particular order.

- Valencia's bullring is not a particularly large example and holds about 12,000, roughly half the capacity of those in Madrid and Barcelona but barely a quarter as large as the one in Mexico City.

- I believe Claude mentioned social mobility so it is worth noting that, just as an impoverished young man may seek a way out of his wretched existence through boxing, football or crime, so do many young Spanish men - and recently, women - seek the riches, fame and elevation of status available via the bullfight. There is a form of bullfighter called the rejoneador, who kills his bulls from horseback. Though in many ways this is a more difficult and beautiful discipline, the rejoneador is generally admired rather than adored by aficionados as he will like as not be from a privileged family, unlike the majority of normal toreros who have a background with which the poor schlubs in the 'sol' seats can identify.

- spectacle is never pointless. It may be distasteful, vulgar, cruel or downright annoying, but there is no such thing as a pointless gathering of thousands.

- as I have said elsewhere many times, I adore bullfighting but would on balance probably ban it tomorrow if I had the power. Not sure though. I am planning to go and see a so-called 'bloodless' bullfight in France for sake of comparison.