Many people don’t like bullfights in particular for the animal cruelty aspect. The idea that an animal is goaded and tortured in an unequal fight to the death does raise ethical issues.
[Ethical aside. The issue of animal welfare is one that is deeply important to me. Our food chain is a horrific morass of animal torture, at an industrial scale that is hard to comprehend. We should all be vegans–for our bodies, for the planet, for the animals–I am almost there in diet, and working on it with clothes. The life and death of a fighting bull is very different than that of a dairy or meat cow. Importantly it never lives a life of degradation, de-animalisation, and terror like all of the beasts in our food system. A fighting bull only sometimes discovers fear at the final moment, and death is typically swift and merciful.]
If any of you have ever been to a bull farm and had the chance to play with the calves, you know how terrifying even a baby bull without horns is when it starts to charge you. Respect for the bullfighter. It takes superhuman courage to stand still in the face of an animal whose sole desire is to maim or kill you. In my own life I find this courage through the act of submission, to God, to fear itself, to the Goddess who brings me to face it.
It is in the bullring that machismo finds an outlet that acceptable and beautiful. It is the only place for it. Julio Aparicio was gored through his neck and the bull’s horn came out his mouth. Two weeks later he was back in the ring with a silk scarf tied around his neck to hide the wound. El Juli, who turned pro at the age of 16 and has been a child prodigy, was gored twice in the buttocks, once in the scrotum, and once in the thigh by the time he had turned 18. He weighs just 130 lbs and the horns of the 1,000 lbs bulls he faces come to his shoulders, requiring him to leap over the bull’s head to deliver the coup de grace. He continues to enchant with his courage and grace in the ring.
Bullfights are beyond theatre because they involve life and death. They are living and dying played out before our eyes, with ritual and artistry, tragic beauty. This is especially true of the good ones. There are still many places to see bullfights in the world, as the tradition continues to run strong in cultures that cherish them as part of their way of life. Although we think of Spain as the cradle of the bullfight, and Pamplona’s running of the bulls as one of the amazing spectacles of the art, the bullring in Mexico City strikes me as the greatest stage of them all.
It was here, and only here, that I saw a bull win, nearly taking the life of the matador. To see him clutching the artery in his thigh as but literally spurted rhythmically between his fingers moved us all. His face was placid but tight as he lay rigid, held high above the heads of six of his assistants, all in their fancy dress, as they quick-stepped him out and the bull pawed the ground and watched them go.
Once a bull has made serious contact, he knows too much, and is no longer safe to challenge. If he is not too badly wounded already, he is spared and sent to a life of breeding, one that is deemed in the macho world of Latin bullfighting culture, a bull’s paradise. The thought goes that such a macho bull will enrich the bloodline.
These little men, smaller and lighter than many girls, in their prissy outfits, skin-tight, embroidered, sequined, with lace and taffeta capes, cut such a contrast to a mighty bull. Such a gorgeous beast will weigh in from 1,100-1,600lbs, and with head held high, come to the shoulders of a matador.
I once had the great pleasure of witnessing a young matador in Spain attempt a series of very close passes during the faena, the final third of a bullfight. They were passes so close that the bull grazed him each time as it passed. The art lay in keeping the bull so close, to make it as if the bull was attached to him, turning in a tight circle around his body. It requires incredible flexibility and insane courage, as it is a very dangerous move.
In this particular instance, giddy with the cheers of the crowd after a successful pass and turn, the matador attempted a repeat but erred. The bull jerked its horn up just as it passed the young man’s finely sculpted buttock, caught him on it, and tossed him.
Quick as a flash he was up again, but his tight little outfit was torn. His entire perfectly performed butt cheek was poking out. To say that it was perfectly sculpted was an understatement. I can’t recall ever seeing a more perfect ass. Without a second’s hesitation he picked up his cape, stood erect, and with that taunting, walking strut, strode towards the bull, calling it, provoking it. Again the bull charged, and again he attempted this same close move, and again the bull jerked its horns as it passed, but this time he was ready for it, and the bull only caught the loose fabric of his torn pants.
His pant leg split all the way down to the ankle. His leg was hairless and perfectly toned, beautiful. He stood there, holding himself erect, proud, un-reacting, not even acknowledging his exposed state, and continued to goad and guide the bull, his buttock and leg out, and the place went wild. Especially the women.
And what a curious mix of everything it was. He was wearing panties, a g-string, and obviously had no hair on his legs. He was also displaying the ideal of fearlessness in the ring with a bull that dwarfed him and had found the measure of him. And he was clearly exulting in the adrenaline and the brush with injury and humiliation that he had had that was being fed by the hysterical cries of the crowd.
When it came time to draw the spectacle to a close, the crowd went so utterly silent that you could hear the crickets on the grass outside of the ring. The bull stood, breathing heavily, staring at him, pawing at the ground, shouting at him. He raised his sword, aiming it at the beast, and the bull thundered towards him. Standing still, h lined the sword with his eye and waited until the bull was upon him, stepped forward, reaching his arm over the horns and plunged the sword into the bull, sinking the sword to the hilt, piercing the animal’s heart, and killing it instantly. The bull fell to all four knees in silence, keeled over, and was dead before hitting the ground.
The crowd surged to its feet, as if one, and cheered in jubilation. The half-exposed matador strutted around the ring, strikingly good looking, curiously oblivious to his semi-nudity and exposure of his frilly under-things. The women all around me were throwing him their high heels for him to kiss and toss back, throwing him flowers. One woman even threw him her panties. These he kept, bringing them to his lips and nose before tucking them into the waistband of his outfit.
I am perplexed and curiously intrigued by this cocktail of femininity, beauty, elegance machismo, tragedy, violence, and death, and cannot help but be carried by the euphoria of the crowd at the spectacle. An enigma, and one peculiar to the most macho culture on earth.
If you have not seen Pedro Almodovar’s dark and kinky early-career masterpiece, The Matador, please consider it.