August 12, 2005

Bullfight World
By Lyn Sherwood

What is Bullfighting to Americans, and Americans to Bullfighting?

In exploring any aspect of the ancient art of tauromachy, it is not enough to merely launch a thesis or point of view, without first establishing a foundation of understanding. It is a subject that fascinates Anglo Americans, but one that—due to dramatic cultural differences—most non-Latins find very difficult to understand.

As children, we are inspired by The Little Engine That Could and Bible stories of Joshua and David and Goliath. We play cowboys ‘n indians and cops ‘n robbers. At the movies and on television, we are bombarded with super heroes. In school, we learn of the hardships of the pioneers and the patriots of the American Revolution. We are impressed by images of Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Boone, Martin Luther King Jr., Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh, John Glenn, and other explorers, astronauts, leaders, and innovators, men and women who dared to dream impossible dreams, and who invested enough true grit and tenacity, in spite of overwhelming odds, to eventually feast on the spoils of triumph.

In such beloved cinematic morality plays as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Good Life, and Sergeant York, the good guy is always a clean-cut, honest, courageous, somewhat naive character who is dedicated to truth and the red-blooded American way. Meanwhile, the villain wears a hat as black as his heart and delights in throwing starving widows and their children out into the snow.

In such classic conflicts of good vs. evil, there are no question marks, no grey areas, no room for debate.

Likewise, ours is a very sports-minded nation that loves it when a “Cinderella team” stands up to smite the heavily-favored team, or when the 98-pound weakling forces the big bully to back down.Of equal importance, we are a nation of animal lovers. Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Black Beauty, Bambi, and Flipper make us laugh and cry. We cannot tolerate anything that gives the appearance of imposing cruelty upon any animal.

Therefore, to the majority of Americans, the bullfight seems cruel and unfair. In spite of the fact that the toro outweighs the torero by ten or more times, and has lethal weapons growing from its head, it rarely survives its encounter with man in the arena. Thus, in the mind of the average American, the bull is projected into the role of the underdog. The fallacy is that such thinking places bullfighting within the context of a “sport”, a category in which it simply doesn’t fit.

A sport is a match or competition between supposed equals to an unknown goal. In the bullfight, there is no competition—fair or otherwise—between man and bull, no archetypal battle of brain vs. brawn.

The two main participants are far from equal. Except in those unique instances in which a particular bull demonstrates such outstanding bravery that its life is spared, via the indulto, the goal is determined.

In fact, the bullfight is a sport only in the context that figure skating is a sport. In both events, what is accomplished is secondary to how it is accomplished.

Figure skaters and toreros are athletes who perform stylized, balletic rituals in which specific disciplines must be demonstrated. One uses a cape and muleta; the other uses skates. One does verónicas and derechazos; the other does lutzes and axels. Each engages in an intimate dance in which individual identities are melded within swirling illusions of geometric precision and exhausting emotion. Each, in cadence with the music and in response to the cheers of the crowd, attempts to weave and link the aesthetics of his or her own art into a beautiful, albeit ethereal tapestry.

Each maneuver has a name and must be done according to established patterns, com-plemented only by one’s own unique personality and interpretation.

In both arts, the form of the body, the degree of difficulty or risk, the flow, the grace, the plastic symmetry, the mastery of technique, and the courage involved in attempting precarious maneuvers, are its primary elements.

Yet, even after explaining all of this, the average uninitiated American will ask, “But, why doesn’t the bull ever win?”

Winning and losing can no more be applied to bullfighting than it can to any other performing art. Even when a bull gores or kills a Matador, such isn’t recorded as a “win.”

But, don’t ever entertain the notion that bullfighting isn’t dangerous. The horns rip and tear, destroying flesh and rupturing arteries. And, they do it frequently. The average Matador, during a career that normally spans 15 to 20 years, receives the last rites of his church six times. He suffers dozens of lesser, non-life-threatening gorings.

Toreros aside, the most misunderstood character in the bullfight is the bull. Ancient cave drawings in Altamira, in northern Spain, and in Les Trios and Lascaus, France, reflect the fear and respect that Paleolithic man held for the aurochs, the horned-devil beast.  Summerian culture worshipped the bull as a deity. The “sign of the horns”, the “evil eye”, demonstrates the kind of ethereal malevolence that ancient peoples invested, and some contemporary societies still invest, in the bull.

There are numerous references to the bull in mythology and in religious history. Zeus, in the form of a bull, seduced Europa, who as a result of that union, bore Minos, the Bull God King of Crete. Public awe and worship of the bull was also evidenced in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India, where it was the symbol of power and fertility. Bull cults flourished among the Phoenicians, Hebrews, Hittites, and the citizens of Levant.

In 447 A.D., the Council of Toledo defined the devil as “a large, black, monstrous apparition with horns on its head, cloven hoofs, hair, fiery eyes, terrible teeth, an immense phallus, and a sulphurous smell.”

In the Roman colosseum, gladiators often proved their mettle by challenging the fighting bull. They marched into the arena and saluted Caesar in much the same way that modern toreros make the paseillo into the arena, and salute the judge of the plaza.

In addition to being an historically-important creature, La Fiesta’s main player is nature’s most ferocious, graceful, and beautiful, natural-born killer. It has been matched against lions, tigers, and even elephants, and has never been defeated.

On contemporary moral grounds, bullfighting is an indefensible anachronism. Taking the life of a magnificent animal for the entertainment of a paying crowd cannot be justi-fied. But, moralists can at least take some consolation in the fact that domestic cattle live short, wretched lives. But, Toro Bravo is a thoroughbred which, for several hundred years, has been raised as a wild animal, on ranches established specifically for that purpose. He is afforded abundant food and water, and endless acres upon which to roam. He will attack anything that moves, without provocation. If there were no bullfights, the brave bull would have no pur-pose. Eventually, an entire species of animal would disappear.

The bullfight is a complicated, intense, formal ritual, a ballet of death in three acts, in which the brute force of the bull and the artistry of the Matador do not clash, but meld. The torero does not fight the bull; he dances with it. The bull is the torero’s unwitting dance partner, the mysterious “Mr. X.” He has never before appeared on this stage of sand. How he responds is the big question mark.

But, the uninitiated should beware of the “hotdog” matador, the character who makes the whole thing seem like a kamikaze affair. He is known as a tremendista, and he is a fraud.

Within the basic precepts of art, there is ample room for the emergence of personality and innovation. But, when tremendismo is used as the entire taurine essay, when it deceives the crowd, suffocates the performance, and becomes a parody of the drama, it is to real toreo as graffiti is to poetry.

It de emphasizes the tragedy of Toro’s sacrifice and threatens the honor and dignity of La Fiesta.

When a strong and brave bull and a talented and honorable torero come together, the sands of the plaza become a confessional, in which truth is naked and bold. Toro’s death becomes a penance, to be celebrated as the tragic, but essential culmination of the life drama.

But, when a matador ignores the meaning of the play, when he projects the image of the ham, the tourist pleasing con man, he cannot assume the role of a prince, only that of a court jester. For such a common peasant to assume the Power of Death is to denigrate the tragedy into a farce and the plaza de toros into a noisy, outdoor brothel.

Considering all of its history and its esoteric nature, is it really any wonder that bullfighting is so foreign to Americans and so difficult for us to understand?

Nevertheless, we Americans are fascinated by the bullfight. 

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