I submitted this article for my column in Taki’s Magazine. However, I was told by the editor that she’d had quite enough about bulls. Which is ironic, given what it says. Anyway, here it is, for what it’s worth.
Dead Gods With Cold Eyes
I nearly died the other day. Not, like the time before when John Hemingway, Ernest’s grandson, pulled me out from a stampede in Pamplona or the time before that when Eduardo Dávila Miura pulled me out of a bull-ring in Palma del Río. This time was for real.
I was running with the bulls of Cuéllar, which is a much like running with the bulls of Pamplona, only the town is smaller, the encierro – ‘bull-run’ – more ancient (the most ancient, in fact, as I wrote in the Financial Times) less crowded, and those that do turn up are mainly local, all Spanish, with not a drunk or first-timer among them.
Despite this I still managed to bump into someone as I passed a lone, stationary bull in a narrow stretch of street. Being lighter than me, he was knocked to safety, but I dropped where I was and the commotion drew the bull’s eyes – black, bovine, lifeless and colour-blind, following only movement – and it charged across the street, skittering to a halt on its hooves as I similarly fought for grip in my new, untested running shoes.
With my back against the wall, its horns either side of my chest – literally – and, unlike in Pamplona or an official plaza de toros, no surgeon within a forty-five minute drive, I saw my own death ahead of me. However, for some reason the bull decided today was not my day and moved on, most likely because I had the presence of mind to freeze, making myself invisible to the clockwork brain behind the horns.
Minutes after that I went to accept an award from the Taurine Cultural Association of the town with all the interviews and nonsense that go along with these things (see base of article.) As they presented me with the bronze head of a bull bearing a terrifying resemblance to the one whose horns had measured me, I had the surreal sensation that I had actually died and was presently dreaming. It makes no sense, I know. Que toda la vida es sueño, / y los sueños, sueños son – All life is a but dream, and dreams are only dreams, as Calderon had it.
Afterwards, I asked myself – not for the first time – “why am I doing this?” Obviously, the locals in the many towns and cities of Spain and France where bulls are run in the streets have a perfectly good reason: tradition. However, what reason does a thirty-seven-year-old professional writer from England have? Despite appearances, I am not a thrill-seeker: I have never jumped from an aeroplane, nor a bungee. I did some rock-climbing, scuba and parascending with the army when I was a cadet, but that was mandatory until a kid I knew died doing the last. I used to ski fast and well when I was young, but when my older brother was killed doing the same on a family holiday in 1988, that stopped as well.
Sigmund Freud postulated a death urge just as powerful and primal as the urge life, and his follower Wilhelm Stekel named it after the Classical Greek personification of Death, Thanatos. Modern psychology doesn’t like the idea, smelling as it does of metaphysics and the “black flood of occultism”. It prefers to explain destructive behaviours in evolutionary terms, of how they might increase status and thus reproductive success, or how the risk of long term damage is outweighed in the faulty scales of human cognition by the immediate ‘buzz’.
There is no denying these are factors. However, there is something much deeper here. The Classical Greeks held tragedy to be the highest dramatic form and the belief has persisted for the subsequent two and a half millennia. And yet this is a narrative structure in which the protagonist, the character with whom the audience identifies, most often winds up dead. The majority of Aeschylus and Sophocles ends this way and all of Shakespeare. In fact, at the end of possibly the greatest tragedy ever written, Hamlet, so many people lie piled on the stage at the end that young Fortinbras is moved to say:
O proud Death,What feast is on in thine eternal cell,That thou so many princes at a shotSo bloodily hast struck?
It wasn’t until Hollywood made its sole contribution to Western Art –the happy ending – that we were reduced to only the villains dying and the idea of just deserts.
I was driven back to these thoughts when I arrived home in London to find two books waiting for me: The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1923-1925 (for review in The Spectator), and Beyond Death In The Afternoon: A Meditation on Tragedy in the Corrida, a brief eBook by Allen Josephs (who has featured in this column before) and named for Hemingway’s 1932 guide to the world of bullfighting, Death In The Afternoon.
Hemingway placed Death and the ‘thanatic urge’ at the very heart of his analysis of bullfighting which he described as “a tragedy; the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the bull.”
Professor Josephs takes this thought further, analysing the structure of tragedy, an essential part of which he argues is the attempt to master nature, something which for our ancestors – from whom we derive our instincts and thus their satisfactions – was a matter of survival.
The modern corrida allows us to experience and to re-experience this necessary mastering and killing vicariously yet viscerally, for the corrida is both ritual and reality. That simultaneously vicarious and visceral experience of life and death – difficult to find anywhere else – in the most dazzlingly beautiful mise en scène, is undoubtedly the spectacle’s basic appeal.
The modern corrida, the ‘bullfight’ as it is mistranslated for it is not a sport, fight nor fair, is in fact a drama in three acts: First, the matador with a large cape passes the bull to the picadors with their lances and their armoured horses who test, tire and injure it. Then come the banderilleros with their barbed sticks to reinvigorate it. Then the matador re-enters with his red cloth, the muleta, and his sword.
This all grew out of the knightly jousting of bulls, which were then finished by a servant called the matador, which literally means ‘killer’. The evolution of the spectacle has been multifarious, but the central conceit that has come out of it is that the bull enters as an astonishing force of nature and is then ‘reduced’ through injury and fatigue to the extent that the matador can stand stock still and draw it around him with the muleta with an emotionally moving elegance and a staunch defiance of the threat that the bull poses. That threat has been reduced by the intervention of the matador’s team, yes, but it is there nonetheless, as 533 dead bullfighters in three centuries can attest to.
I have mentioned in this column beforethe fatal goring of Paquirri, matador father to my matador friend, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, who is also great grandson of Cayetano Ordóñez, Hemingway’s idol in his letters. Josephs, however, focuses on the death of the matador that killed the bull that killed Paquirri.
José Cubero, El Yiyo, one of the most promising of the young toreros of the early 80s, often called the Prince of Toreo [bullfighting], said in a radio interview in 1983, that he often thought of death at the moment of turning out the light on his night-table. ‘I think a horn will rip out my heart, but I always respond to the nightmare with “So what?” I am a torero and my father passed along the vice in my blood.
Two years later exactly that happened: he had fought a bull with courage and style and entered to kill with honour, going over the horns with the sword in a move which would have guaranteed a triumph and two ears of the bull. However, even as the bull was dying, it charged the retreating matador, who misjudged the distance he needed to move his muleta to distract it. As a result, it’s left horn caught him in the leg, tossing him in the air. Then, when he landed on the floor and began to roll away as all toreros do, the bull came upon him again, and slid that same left horn between his ribs and lifted him gently to his feet. As it withdrew its horn and he began to walk away, Yiyo’s banderillero heard him say, “he has killed me.” He made it seven paces: you can count them here.
It seems such a waste of a life, and yet Yiyo, speaking of seeing his friend Paquirri die 1984, “to die bullfighting is the most beautiful end for those of us dedicated to this profession.”
This sounds both profoundly alien and wantonly destructive to those not immersed in this Spanish (and southern French, Portuguese and Latin American) tradition. However, if one stretches open one’s understanding just a little, one can just about catch sight of what it all means, just, and only obliquely, out of the corner of the mind’s eye.
Bullfighting is not a game, and the men who take part in it are not athletes, although they are athletic. They are symbols, standing for the plight of all people stuck in a world which will eventually kill them, but which they can choose to try to run away from, or can stand and face, invoke its wrath, and then suavely discard it with nonchalance and grace.
However, for this ritual to have any meaning, for the risk to be shown to be real, and for it to achieve the highest form of its expression as an art – which is how it is viewed in Spain – sometimes it is not enough that it is only the bull that dies, but the man must die as well. As Josephs points out, in so many of our most powerful myths about the incarnations of gods they die. In fact, they are made flesh, and thus mortal, so they can die: Jesus of Nazareth, Dionysus, Atis, Adonis, Osiris, Tammuz, the list goes on. As it does for bullfighters: Joselito, Gitanillo de Triana, Ignacio Sanchéz Mejías, Manolete, Paquirri, Yiyo…
The tragic hero in the suit of lights remains the only extant pre-Christian priest in the western world… What the matador lacks, say, in dogma, he makes up for as exemplar. In his ritual, as hero and as priest, the matador enacts – literally, not symbolically – the most ancient myth we have, the killing of the bull god. It was for that reason that [the Spanish poet] Lorca called the corrida “the only serious thing left in the world” … and Angel Alvarez de Miranda… wrote of toreros “in this world without religion and without heroes” as “the only ones who carry on the sense of ritual beneath the sun, in an authentic liturgy that has it its chorus its entire public.
So, am I not just trying to be one of these dying gods, to join them, and rather obviously my own late, much beloved brother as well, on whose tomb stone are engraved Tennyson’s words: “Death has made / His darkness beautiful with thee”? Yes there’s more than a bit truth to this, a truth made of equal parts vainglory and morbidity. As I said before, time to move on. However, that is harder than it looks.
Alexander Fiske-Harrison is author of
Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight
A travel memoir of his two years in the ’world of the bulls’ – one as spectator, one as bullfighter - was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book Of The Year Award 2011, and selected for best travel book for summer by both Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph, and for best sports book for Christmas by the same newspapers. Click on the image below for more details.
Below is the rather overblown article about my exploits and friends in the Spanish national newspaper ABC. This year I made the cover, last year a similarly ‘grand’ piece came out at exactly the same time of year, just without the cover – it is enclosed below as well (click to enlarge.) AFH