Bullfighting culturally significant


It's hard to miss the billboard-sized bull silhouettes that appear along the roads of the Spanish countryside. These metal cutouts began as an ad campaign for Andalusian sherry, but the big bovine has slowly become the unofficial symbol of Spain, tapping into romanticized conceptions of the country as some exotic Eden. Spain has a reputation as an old world haven of culture and passion, but that doesn't always jibe with what we think of as a modernized society. Now, the country rests in the tenuous position of having to justify bullfighting — a national pastime — to a disapproving world while defending itself as a forward-thinking nation. We say tsk tsk, and Spain is back at square one.

Legislators in Catalonia — a northeastern autonomous community of Spain — voted in July to end bullfighting in the region. Even after long debates, it's unclear whether the move was more about animal rights or Catalonia's separatist ambitions. In any case, the ruling signals that Spain is bowing under the pressure of the international community to wipe out the historic practice entirely. To go down without a fight would be ironic.

A vast number of the Spanish people still support bullfighting, if not for its tourism revenue, for its cultural importance to them. Contemporary Spanish bullfights are highly ritualistic and showy, including brightly vested matadors and a full brass band, but they have not deviated greatly from their more humble, centuries-old precursors. The fight itself moves through three stages, where the bull is progressively weakened by stabbing and eventually killed with a single blow. If the bull performs exceptionally well he leaves the ring alive and never fights again. But the event is more than senseless tauricide, or killing of the bull. The corrida de toros (the running of the bulls) is a uniquely Spanish art of action and poise, which, when done well, carries just the right amount of beauty and danger. As the matador makes a pass, onlookers watch for the proximity of horn to vest, the true measure of his skill. It is a very real and physical display of man versus beast, nature in an idealized form. In a culture of factory farms and slaughterhouses, it's as close as we can get.

Ernest Hemingway called the bullfight a "tragedy," and he was probably on to something. The emotional responses a fight can provoke are yet another side of its artfulness. The first-time spectator will face an enthusiastic crowd, cheering for and wincing at the systematic killing of the animal. They are not simply bloodthirsty bystanders. At my first fight, I also feared the unpredictable outcome. It's that uncertain feeling that defines this microcosm of nature: Who will prevail, man or beast? A masculine impulse for control is what drives the bullfighter, but the connection that lies in the empty space between the gazes of the matador and the bull, standing face-to-face, is what creates the tragic feeling of a good fight. This may sound romantic, but writing about the brushstrokes inside the Sistine Chapel can't begin to express the experience of actually standing under its roof.

Spain is no less safe for bullfighting. In fact the country enjoys a remarkably low murder rate. Violent crimes touch off particularly emotional responses in the Spanish owing to the relative security they live in. The story of a missing teen, for example, will top news programs for months, as such crimes are rare and taken awfully seriously. As a result, it's baseless and wrong to say that the Spanish don't care about the lives of the bulls. The reverence they feel for bullfighting is little more than a profound respect for death. Bullfighting is one way they expose themselves to the reality of death and come to accept it. Since the bulls are raised to fight, they are reared with a degree of care not afforded countless other animals who are raised for specific human purposes across the globe. The bulls are fed regularly and allowed to roam the ranch. In short, they are treated well.

No doubt some readers will protest that bullfighting is a primitive custom, at best. If the bull suffers unnecessarily, it's inhumane. But to stop there is to deny bullfighting even the chance of legitimacy. To stop there is to invite ignorance and impulsive generalizations. Thousands of people support the art bullfighting and don't think it's cruel. It's worth finding out why.

Joe Hernandez is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in English and Spanish. His column, "The Soapbox," runs on alternate Thursdays.


Joe Hernandez

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