Thursday, December 30, 2010

Madrid: The Bulls at Las Ventas

Hemingway loved bullfighting. He loved bullfghters. He loved people who loved bullfighting. His Death In The Afternoon is the classic English language tract on bullfighting. Bullfighting plays a central role in his great novel The Sun Also Rises, both as a backdrop for the events and as a proving ground in which the noble characters display their best qualities by enjoying the fights, while the others show their own lack of merit. In that novel, he wrote "Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

The more modern view of bullfighting condemns it as cruel and primitive. There is an active movement in Spain to ban bullfighting, and recently a ban was put into place which will cover the autonomous region of Catalonia. The feelings over bullfighting are further complicated by the fact that Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain with an iron fist for more than 35 years, saw bullfighting as integral to the Spain he wanted to preserve and restore, and he promoted the ritual throughout the country.

With this historical baggage, and the encouragement of no one, I set about to see a bullfight. I spoke about my desire to see one for some time, and found that absolutely no one I knew had ever been to a bullfight, except for two women who were friends of Ana's parents. These two women, one in her late 50s and the other in her early 70s, had friends who often took them to the corridas and enjoyed them. When Ana told them that I wanted to go, they said they would take me with them one day. The promise of spending the afternoon with these two ladies (neither of them speaking English and my Spanish being, at best, defective) and the bulls was unusual, but if this was the only way I was going to see the famed spectacle, so be it.

As it turned out, they were able to get two tickets, so that I went with Ana. Ana was not enthusiastic about going to the bullfight, but she was just curious enough to overcome her distaste for the matter and accompany me.

The bull ring in Madrid is called Las Ventas. It is a lovely stadium, and surprisingly cosy. It seats 25,000, and was opened in 1929. I had been here once before, to see an R.E.M. concert. This was a very different experience.

We had box seats. This literally meant that the section in which we were seated had its own door, which had to be unlocked by one of the ushers. There was a level of seating below us, and below that, the sand of the arena.

The events began with the blowing of horns, and the playing of music, and the festively costumed participants came out into the arena, parading before the crowd. Men on horseback in plumed hats, and the matadors themselves, in their traje de luces, the lavishly decorated costumes in which they undertake their task.

The ritual of the bull ring is such that the ring is cleared, except for the matador, and the bull is released into the ring. We watched as the bull circled the ring, startled by its new environment. It ran past the matador, and he executed a few passes with the cape. It was interesting to watch, and very graceful.

The the matador departed and the picador entered on horseback. The horse wore a thick coat of padding and was blindfolded, and the picador carried a lance. The bull was enticed to charge the horse, and he ran hard toward it, crashing into the side of the animal while the picador drove his lance into the huge mass of muscle the bull boasted behind his neck. The bull stopped after making impact with the horse, and there was a strange stillness, as the picador leaned his lance into the bull's neck, the bull pressed against the horse, and the horse did nothing at all. It was an odd scene, in part because there was no sound as it occurred. The bull ran, there was not even a thud as it hit the horse, and then all was still. Then the picador pushed until the bull was off the horse, others came into the ring to distract the bull, and the horseman rode off.

The picador departed, replaced by the banderilleros. These three men entered the ring carrying small hooked sticks. Each of the men attempts to plant two hooked sticks behind the bull's neck, near where the lance has already wounded and weakened the bull. This lacked all grace. The banderilleros tried to have as little contact with the bull as possible as they planted their sticks. The bull succeeded in shaking many of the banderillas off.

The matador returned and did a few passes with the bull, which by now had blood covering its back. Then he was brought his sword. He stood before the bull, urging it to charge. The bull hesitated. The matator came closer, stamping his foot, trying to encourage the bull. The bull ran toward the matador, and the matador moved in swiftly with the sword, which bent and flew out into the air. The matador retrieved his sword and tried again. Again there was the hesitation of the bull, and insistence of the matador. Again the bull charged, and again, the matador struck. The result was the same, and the sword was once again retrieved. The thing had been bungled, it seemed, but there was nothing else but to go on. The set up happened again, the charge went on again, and this time, the sword went in, and the bull staggered. The matador walked away, his arms open to the crowd, which gave a polite applause. The bull sat down near the wall of the arena, and then fell over. Horses were brought out, and the bull was dragged away.

We stayed for the second of the six bulls, and found it to be more of the same. Ana had seen enough, and was eager to leave. I was happy she had come with me, and did not argue the point.

We had gone and seen the thing. I had not been thrilled, certainly by the corrida. I had not been horrified, either. It was a ritualized slaughter, nothing more or less. The crowd, mostly old, did not watch it so much as appraise it, intent to see that the thing was correctly done. There were cries of disgust when the sword missed its mark, and sighs of relief when it went in. It was not a passionate display. Perhaps other matadors bring more to it than the two we saw that day. It is a peculiar ritual. It is certainly not a sport, in the sense that there is no measurement of the achievement and the outcome is predetermined. It's a brutal ritual, and I saw no more art to it than one would see by observing at an abattoir. In past days, the bull would have been used for meat after the fight, but the European Union regulations do not permit that anymore. The crowd did not seem connected to the events on the sand, the ritual catharsis of the killing was not evident. An old ceremony, it seemed, where the congregation no longer has the faith but goes out of the habit. I suspect it will not last much longer, since the crowd was predominantly old, and it does not seem popular at all among the young. I'm glad I got to see it, but I won't be sorry when it is gone.  Were the bullfighters "living their lives all the way up"?  It did not seem so to me.  More like they are the few remaining priests at a temple which has lost its believers, going through the motions as they have been done in the past.


  1. I'm not going back to see a corrida again! I made me a bit sick.

  2. Ugh, sounds awful. I never understand the whole killing in the middle of a ring, thing.

  3. It is an awful spectacle. But the sudden transition from life to death is incredibly moving. While I did not find the people engaged in performing the rite to be particularly interesting, the bull itself went beyond the shabbiness of its treatment and displayed a greatness of spirit.