About the author

I was born and raised in London and rural East Anglia, to English parents, but from November 2008 (when the above photo was taken) until November 2010, I based myself in Seville, Spain, and tried to find out everything I could on the subject of bullfighting following an article I wrote on the subject for Prospect magazine in the UK, which was circulated widely, from the Dayton Daily News in Ohio to The India Express in Bombay, from CNN to Al-Jazeera. This is despite its conclusion being an open one. All I said was,

“Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.” (The article is reprinted on this blog here)

Me with Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez

I spent most of the first year travelling with bullfighters to watch them work in bullrings and ranches of Spain, France and Portugal. From Spain’s greatest amateur bullfighter, Adolfo Suárez Illana, to her bravest professional Juan José Padilla; from her most famous, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez, to her newest star, Miguel Ángel Perera – I got to know these men and, at their suggestion, entered the ring with them (and survived.)

Me with Padilla and Suárez

Although many will argue that this destroys any semblance of neutrality in my research, in fact, if anything it made me strive harder for impartiality. I did not for one second cease thinking about – and writing about – the cruelties involved in bullfighting. I have been a paid up member of the WWF since I was thirteen – more than twenty years – and was a member of Greenpeace for ten. I studied biology and then philosophy at the universities of Oxford and then London, undergraduate and postgraduate, and have published in favour of increased Animal Rights – see, for example, my Financial Times article on ape intelligence reprinted on this blog here.

The completed book, Into The Arena – The World of the Spanish Bullfight was published by Profile Books on May 26th, 2011. It went on to gain excellent reviews and be shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year. (The book website is here.) I hope I do this astonishingly complicated, dramatic and important spectacle – whether you end by loving it or hating it – justice.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

(I can be contacted directly by leaving a comment on the page here.)

Comments

  1. Paul Campbell says:

    Dear Mr. Fiske-Harrison,

    Years ago I followed an exchange on the subject of whether or not the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was autistic. Can it be the same person? I enclose the exchange below.

    Yours,

    Dr. Paul R. Campbell

    From The Times Literary Supplement August 2, 2002
    Letters to the Editor

    Wittgenstein and autism

    Sir, –

    Brian McGuinness quotes Michael Dummett as stating “We have not yet come to terms with Wittgenstein” (June 14); the reason being that Wittgenstein suffered from autism (see the European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Journal) and his work cannot be fully understood unless his autism and its impact on his philosophy are understood.

    Wittgenstein is one of a number of autistic philosophers that includes Spinoza.

    MICHAEL FITZGERALD Department of Psychiatry, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 10.

    From The Times Literary Supplement August 9, 2002
    Letters to the Editor

    Wittgenstein and autism

    Sir, –

    On the biographical evidence we have it would seem a little hasty to diagnose Wittgenstein autistic tout court (Letters, August 2). However, as Michael Fitzgerald is both an eminent child psychiatrist and a former pupil of one of Wittgenstein’s own pupils, Maurice Drury (also a psychiatrist), he is as well qualified as any to do so. Certainly, the “ism” of the “autos” (self) might explain Wittgenstein’s brilliant and lifelong struggle with the appeal of philosophical idealism and her lonely sister, solipsism. What it entirely misses is the validity of his struggle and the truth of his successes. In asserting that Wittgenstein’s “work cannot be fully understood unless his autism” is, Professor Fitzgerald is falling foul of the cause/reason dichotomy of which a philosopher like Wittgenstein was so aware (despite his autism).

    This can be best illustrated with a single example: Wittgenstein gave up the philosophy of his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus for a good reason, the reason being that if the only statements which are true independent of experience are the statements of pure logic, and if statements about the colours of things are not statements of pure logic, then how do we explain the fact that nothing in experience could conceivably make me say of an object that it is simultaneously red and green all over (excluding a mixture like brown as a separate colour).

    It was this problem that “justified” Wittgenstein’s abandonment of his early philosophy, and led him to dally briefly with the Kantian notion of non empirical truths which are not also truths of logic (the notorious synthetic “a priori”), before moving on to develop his distinctive later Wittgensteinian philosophy.

    One cause of this piece of philosophical manoeuvring may well have been autism, just as another cause may have been the Italian economist Piero Sraffa making a rude gesture to the philosopher with his fingers, as Wittgenstein himself suggested to another pupil, Norman Malcom (quoted in his Ludwig Wittgenstein: A memoir).

    After months of terminal illness, and a few hours before sliding into his final coma, Wittgenstein wrote: “Someone who, dreaming, says ‘I am dreaming’, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream ‘it is raining’, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected to the noise of the rain.” I think the autistic philosopher here saw something the clinician has missed as to how sentences gain their meaning and thus truth (or falsity), and so how they are to be understood – fully or not.

    ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON 114, Eaton Square, Belgravia, London S.W.1.

    From The Times Literary Supplement August 16, 2002
    Letters to the Editor

    Wittgenstein and autism

    Sir, –

    So even the TLS is subject to a silly season. How else to explain the recent correspondence about Wittgenstein and autism (August 2 and 9)?

    Michael Fitzgerald (August 2) thinks we can only properly understand Wittgenstein’s philosophy in terms of the supposed fact that he was “autistic”.

    Then Alexander Fiske-Harrison (August 9) weaves an elaborating border about this little pile of nonsense.

    Now even if one accepts that Wittgenstein could be located somewhere at the high end of the autism/Asperger spectrum, to say to a philosopher – to say to anybody – that the reason you argue this way is that you have a mental disorder is to treat them as something less than a rational creature. “You just couldn’t help it, poor thing; you were caused to do it.” In Fiske-Harrison’s letter there is, in fact, a point at which he almost sees this, but the rest of the time he is merely getting in on Fitzgerald’s act, rumbling on pretentiously and hilariously.

    Clever old Wittgenstein does appreciate the distinction between reasons and causes “despite his autism”. The cause of his temporary abandonment of philosophy after the Tractatus, Fiske-Harrison tells us with Pythonesque inspiration, “may well have been his autism”. Then finally: “I think the autistic philosopher here saw something the clinician missed.”

    This would not be so bad if any serious case could be made for a commonality between Wittgenstein’s ideas and the deviant and impoverished appreciation of the mental and social life typical of autism. Just how autistic is it to argue, as Wittgenstein does, that linguistic meaning is socially grounded? One might say that the anti-internalist, almost behaviouristic strain in Wittgenstein’s views on psychology might suggest a weak grasp of the subjective face of mentality. Why not go the whole hog and make philosophical behaviourism a marker for autism; and tell the philosopher who seems about as “autistic” as Father Christmas but who has some good words to say about behaviourism that we have some bad news for him?

    Hitler spoke of the theory of relativity as “Jewish science”. He thought the theory was caused to take the form it took by the fact of Einstein’s (who, I hear, is another Asperger suspect, by the way) being Jewish.

    There is, within these two self-advertising letters, the potential for a kind of psychiatric racism.

    JAMES RUSSELL Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge.

    From The Times Literary Supplement August 23, 2002
    Letters to the Editor

    Wittgenstein and autism

    Sir, –

    James Russell (Letters, August 16) seems to have so completely missed the point of my letter (August 9) that he thinks I am agreeing with Michael Fitzgerald (August 2) when I am arguing against him. Perhaps he should read it again, and then certain things he seems to have missed might become clear to him.

    First, I do not see how I could more strongly have stated my belief in the irrelevance of Wittgenstein’s mental health to understanding and evaluating his philosophy than by saying that what discussion of his psychiatric condition “entirely misses is the validity . . . and truth” of his work. If I thought otherwise, I should hardly have taken a Wittgensteinian stance not so long ago in these pages (Commentary, June 9, 2000) on the issue of Artificial Intelligence.

    Perhaps Russell was misled by my two tongue-in-cheek asides that he quotes so earnestly. These said that Wittgenstein -despite his purported autism -saw the philosophical irrelevance of such causal matters, while Fitz-gerald -whom I assume to be in excellent mental health -did not.

    As for my casual remarks on a commonality between Wittgenstein’s ideas and the psychological reality of autism: I explicitly referred to the solipsistic, Schopenhauerian strain which appears in his earlier philosophy (“I am my world”, 1916), and to which he was, in his own words, so often drawn throughout his life despite his belief in the falsity of it (“I have never experienced the temptation to realism . . . but I have been strongly tempted to idealism”, 1936).

    Philosophical solipsists are in part characterized by their denial of the existence of other minds. Sufferers of autism have been characterized as those who are unable to form a conception of others that attributes mental states to them; a view excellently propounded in Mindblindness by Simon Baron-Cohen, a colleague of Russell’s (reviewed in these pages August 25, 1995). The prima facie link between the two is obvious -as it would have been to Wittgenstein himself. When discussing the attractions of a philosophical stance he once remarked, “That you are inclined in this way, I should say, is a fact of psychology.” However, as I noted in my opening sentence, I have my doubts that Wittgenstein actually was autistic, but am neither sufficiently expert nor sufficiently interested to argue this.

    Most strikingly, at no point did I even mention Wittgenstein’s “temporary abandonment of philosophy”, let alone offer reasons or causes for it, as Russell suggests. What I spoke about in my letter – and quite clearly I had thought -was that Wittgenstein’s abandonment of his earlier position in favour of later ones, that is, his philosophical development, was justified by a problem in the philosophical logic of that position which I laid out in brief.

    I did supplement this exposition with a remark that autism, were he a sufferer, may have causally contributed. The point was, though, that the causes are independent of the justification, which is why I approvingly quoted a passage of Wittgenstein saying just that!

    Whether I did all this “pretentiously and hilariously” is not for me to judge; obviously I did not do it clearly enough for Russell to understand a word.

    Before Russell indulges in the hyperbolic nonsense of comparisons with Hitler and dark mutterings about “psychiatric racism”, I suggest that he reads what I actually wrote. Not that I believe Michael Fitzgerald’s position is any more deserving of such attacks, but to paraphrase another Russell (Bertrand): I will leave the defence of Fitzgerald to Fitzgerald, who is quite capable of looking after himself.

    ALEXANDER FISKE-HARRISON 114, Eaton Square, Belgravia, London S.W.1.

  2. One of the finest explanations of the topic I have read. Well done.

  3. Thank you.

  4. I’d just like to know exactly what made you interested in this subject, I understand it stems from an article you had done previously

    ” I based myself in Seville, Spain, and tried to find out everything I could on the subject of bullfighting following an article I wrote on the subject for Prospect magazine in the UK”

    but would bullfighting still have captured your interest if you had not done the article on it?
    Was the topic for said article given to you or something you chose to write on?
    I ask because you seem very passionate about the topic, regardless of your impartial state.

    Sincerely
    Mish

  5. Mish, I tend to be passionate about everything I do. And especially when people are thoughtless, or self-deceiving, or deceitful, as they seem to be about this. Best, Alexander

  6. I have read your page with some interest. I am particularly intrigued by your concern for remaining neutral and impartial. I would like to know if you have ever experienced doubt as to the validity of a neutral perspective when dealing with issues such as this? Do you think that a well educated and informed (as you seem to be), yet still ethically decisive project would have been more useful?
    Regards, Laura

  7. I simply don’t see the need. As I say in the book, as a liberal, I would never ban bullfighting nor allow it to be banned without protest, which is decisive enough for me. Telling people something is a categorical good is the province of moralists, priests and absolute rulers – none of which I am nor wish to be.

  8. Your book is in my stack of research for a new novel that uses bullfighting as a stage to explore themes of courage, stupidity and self-respect. I’m looking forward to your take. Incidentally, I had a memorable wedding day in Salamanca, Spain. A bullfight was being aired on TV while I dressed and I explained what I had learned from Hemingway to my mother. My Spanish in-laws found me to be a very curious American bride.

  9. I look forward to the novel! Hemingway is viewed with mixed feelings in Spain, although less so now. When he was rude about Manolete in The Dangerous Summer, not long after the matador was killed by a bull, he was attacked in the Spanish press. They seem much happier with Into The Arena. Suerte. And I hope my book helps…

  10. Thanks, Alexander, I know it will. There isn’t anything else quite like your book on the subject.

  11. “But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.”
    I find this quote deeply shocking. How can a perceived artistic quality ever outweigh the very real suffering of another sentient being? I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion but not when such cruelty is involved. If we were to expand what you have written to humans we could justify no end of atrocities in defence of an ideal. To me the real incoherence lies in this abuse of power towards other creatures and the intellectual or artistic justification of it. Science has now acknowledged that animals are conscious. just as humans are, and for all conscious beings their life is the most precious thing they have. Cruelty can never be beautiful, it only reflects the ugliness in the minds of those who appreciate it.

  12. You may find it deeply shocking but it is deeply true. We slaughter animals for their skins because we like the way they look or feel – aesthetics – and rear them in poor conditions and kill them because we like the way they taste even though meat is bad for us – aesthetics – we even like to watch them hunt and kill one another on nature documentaries – aesthetics. In the end, it is the commonest thing in the world. 35 million cattle were killed in the US last year for aesthetics, 78% were factory farmed. Deeply shocking, yet common as the grains of sand in the desert…

  13. But the fact that these things happen doesn’t make them justifiable. You are only using the fact that there is mass cognitive dissonance in our dealings with animals, and nature as a whole, to justify yet more cruelty. This doesn’t and can’t make it any more right, or any less brutal.

  14. You have a reformist ethics which claims that the majority of human actions throughout our history have been wrong. I find that arrogant. I say it is our pretend sensitivity that is the side of the cognitive dissonance equation which must be rejected as wrong. What is more, the end point of the argument that animals are just like humans in their capacity to suffer, thus we should reduce their suffering, would be to prevent animals inflicting suffering on one another. Tofu and leashes for lions is for me the very definition of a reductio ad absurdum, indeed, ad obscenum.

  15. Since when has simple kindness been arrogant? Would you not call torture wrong despite the fact that humans have engaged in it throughout history?

  16. There is nothing arrogant about kindness. However, stating that the entire means for our species, and very many others, to survive since the evolution of predation 600 million years ago is morally wrong is God-like in its arrogance…

  17. Dear Mr. Fiske-Harrison,

    I am pleased to hear of your friendship with Juan Jose Padilla, and further that you have been in the bullring yourself. How many times? And what was the role they gave you, on these occasions? Is your book still in print? Do you cover the mounted matadors, like Diego Ventura and Lea Vicens?

    Best wishes.

    Chris Mills.

  18. I trained and fought as an espada, an amateur matador. I have toreado many times, but killed only once, a 3-year-old toro bravo of Saltillo. Nowadays I run with bulls more often than torea them (just back from Pamplona, off to Cuéllar in two weeks.) AFH

  19. From my limited, as yet, understanding of the bull, I find it very hard to decide what a bull can see. The cape seems to mesmerize it, to the extent that the matador is rendered invisible, until physical contact is made, then the bull can come alive to the man with often devastating effects. On others, the bull and the man seem even to be touching, without the bull being aware of how near he is to his quarry. A bull is a prey animal, and prey animals have good eyesight, so why do the bulls seem so blind to their main enemy, the man, not to the cape which seems to so fascinate them, to their absolute detriment?

  20. The functionally colour-blind bull (dichromatic visual array, unlike our trichromatic one) has its focus drawn by the threat of movement. The static man is like a tree in the field for as long as the focus is held by the cape or muleta (the red cloth used at the end). Hence ‘temple’ is so vital, the rhythm which allows you to keep the fabric near enough to the bull’s face to dominate his mind, but not so near he touches it to discover it has no substance and goes hunting elsewhere for the real threat! The charge is instigated by citing the bull using the ‘toque’, touch, which send a ripple down the cape… Their eyesight is fine, although weaker dead ahead as the eyes are placed like all herbivores on the side. This works well with the ancestral opponent the wolf, as the wolf in front of those horns is not the real threat, but the ones coming from the back and sides (the visual field is also set low for this reason. Colour perception is a waste of cognitive processing power with so well-camouflaged a foe.) So the matador stands in front, and brings the muleta around the side…

  21. Many thanks: Your website is really very illuminating. Whilst writing, as the British Government sends warships to Spain, I must say that it is very hard to know how anybody British might have the gall to criticise Spaniards for bullfighting. The weapons on those ships are not going to be aimed at bulls. It may be as well to remind everyone that one national symbol of Britain, in Victorian years, was Mr. John Bull. And he wreaked havoc upon the world.

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