There’s been a typical celebrity-led campaign to suppress bullfighting throughout Spain, starting with a petition handed in to the regional parliament in Barcelona. “A ban on bullfighting in Catalonia will encourage the movement to keep growing,” chirped Ricky Gervais — and I wish someone would land a pair of banderillas in his ample flanks, because yesterday the ban was indeed officially approved in the region, with 68 votes in favour and 55 against. Gervais proudly says a ban will “save 100 bulls from inhumane slaughter”, starting on January 1, 2012.
Does it really need to be pointed out that such bulls wouldn’t ever have been born — wouldn’t have existed in any shape or form — unless they had been bred for the ring? They are splendid mythological creatures, nurtured for their aggression and intent on seeking an adversary. Not Gervais or Pamela Anderson or any other sweetly intentioned protester is going to tame them and turn them into daisy-munching cattle in an orchard. They are killers.
The spectacle of a man standing there in the sand with nothing but a red flag and a short sword while half a tonne of sleek angry bull whirls and spins and hooks with its horns used to inspire the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Kenneth Tynan. Orson Welles so worshipped the corrida that his ashes are scattered at the bullfighter Antonio Ordóñez’s farm in Andalusia. Picasso painted images of the bullfight non-stop.
But nobody dares to speak up for the corrida today. Indeed, four years ago Adrien Brody starred in a biopic about Manolete, the bullfighter who was killed in the ring at Linares in 1947, but owing to pressure from Alliance Anticorrida, a French anti-bullfighting group, the £20 million production has yet to be shown. “It is inadmissible to release a film in which the hero is a matador,” argue the protesters. So what is going on?
It is more than an animal rights issue. If you are against animal cruelty, then ban horse racing. Ban putting horses in harnesses to pull carriages. Stop keeping cats and dogs — that’s all unnatural. Become a vegan. Any step short of that is hypocrisy.
My family were farmers and butchers in Wales for more than a century. I grew up next to the slaughterhouse, so I’ve never understood sentimentality about animals. We ran what would now be heralded as an organic business, where the sheep and beef cattle were pampered up until the last moment — as is the Spanish fighting bull.
The toro bravo is a breed native only to the Iberian peninsula. Traditionally they have been bred by the rich, who possess the required land and capital, though these days, with bulls costing £5,000 a piece to raise, estate owners earn more from sunflower oil and olive harvests. There are only about 200 bull-breeding ranches left throughout Spain, continuing and controlling the bloodlines that date from the 17th century. Kept in herds for four or five years and never seeing a man on foot, the bulls have a pretty majestic free-range existence until the final 15 minutes. By law, the matador has to complete his task within that time, or else the bull is returned to the pens.
This happened in Seville recently, where a bull overturned seven horses and was set free to father other splendid monsters. And who doesn’t cheer when one of those cocky tourists comes a cropper in the streets of Pamplona?
Hemingway first went to the bullfight expecting to be “horrified and perhaps sickened” by the “stupid brutal business”, but he found himself transfixed. He was able to see that the primitive and passionate ritual isn’t about the bull but about the man facing it, who is seeing and learning to appreciate genuine danger.
The bullfight is about mastering fear. It is a display of sheer courage that puts one in touch with Roman gladiatorial games. It is very visceral. I have myself been to the world’s main bullring, Las Ventas in Madrid, and to the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza in Seville, built in 1761 and the setting for Bizet’s Carmen. The first thing to note is that the corrida is undeniably amazingly exciting; and second, that it has nothing to do with sport. It is an ancient ceremony, re-enacting the bloodletting and death of an innocent victim, in which Welles saw parallels with Othello. But surely a closer analogy is with the savagery of what happens to Christ. It is a sort of primeval Mass.
But this is Spain, not Islington. Look at the paintings of Goya and El Greco — the portraits of the hanging body of Christ with gaping wounds — and at those sinister Baroque churches with wrought-iron gates. Or consider the stamping and wailing and howling in flamenco music: the songs about love and loss, with postures that mimic the weird intimacy of man and bull. Southern Spain with its yellow soil is so hot it is like being on fire. The contrast of light and shade has an intensity I’ve seen nowhere else. Bullfighting comes out of this frenzy. We in the north can’t begin to identify with it.
The matador with his passes and stances, the tossing and goring, is participating in a grotesque ballet. Strong emotions such as fury, horror, loss, fear and pity are involved. And in our own society, where no one can cope with the basic facts of death and pain, this is felt to be very threatening. We are too pusillanimous.
Cigarettes are banned, hunting is banned, boxing they want banned, and sensuality, I am sure, will soon be banned. Enjoyment will be illegal. Everything has to be virtual and cerebral, kept inside the head or on the computer screen, like the violence in children’s computer games. Politically correct persons want to obliterate or muzzle any evidence of the link between modern man and our urges to be bacchanalian. The bullfight is a massive threat to this.
No wonder we are going mad and are pumped full of antidepressants. We are socially anaemic, insect-like and machine-made, with no energy. Bullfighting, maybe, is a sign of a healthy culture, one with, as Hemingway would say, cojones.
Roger Lewis is author of Seasonal Suicide Notes (Short Books)