Bullfighting is widely viewed as a barbaric pastime, but deep in the mountains of southern Spain, there remains no higher art.
On Saturday morning, the second day of the fifty-seventh Goyesca of Pedro Romero, I arrive from Madrid to a packed, muggy train station in Ronda. The main hall, dank and low-ceilinged, is full of young affluent cliques—everyone very handsome and so very intimidating. The high, slippery sibilance of the Andalusian accent rings out over the attractive aesthetic, complemented by the occasional flat vowel of a Londoner or the choking “r” of a Frenchman. Outside, the sun is dulled by thick, sagging rain clouds and a light refreshing breeze blows. It’s cool for early September in southern Spain.
“Que pasa, tio? Quieres un taxi?” croaks a weather-gnarled driver.
“No gracias, no quiero,” I reply rather tersely; I haven’t yet recovered from the exceedingly early hour of the train ride.
“Pues, disfruta de los toros”—Well then, enjoy the bulls—he lisps, in rather obvious disgust at my rejection.
“Gracias,” I say, remaining unmoved on the sidewalk. I can’t get in the taxi because I have a meeting planned with the host of my accommodation. I know only that her name is Prado, that she insisted upon picking me up, and that she has “incredibly short blonde hair”—her own words in a text message. When she finally arrives I am surprised to see she is about sixty years old and that her hair is cropped so close to her scalp it might have been painted on. She wears thick, chunky fashionable glasses, which do little to conceal her exaggerated eyebrows. Her lips are enlarged twofold by a rather profligate use of lipstick, and her cheeks are plastered in a snowy white powder that makes me curious about the state of her skin underneath. A sharp, well-fitted red dress and white knee-high boots finish off the look. It seems, almost immediately, I have been introduced to the colorful and surprising dress sense of the Goyesca.
A word on the fashion here: the idea behind the fiesta is that all of its participants dress up in the style of Pedro Romero’s time period—Romero being history’s most famous bullfighter and the creator of what we now identify as la corrida moderna—the modern bullfight. The event is named “the Goyesca” because these forms of dress were so brilliantly captured by the master painter Francisco de Goya in his paintings of old bullfights. The costumes themselves are reminiscent of a flamboyant type of attire that first arose in Madrid in the eighteenth century. Returning to Prado: although her dress may not be specifically for the festival, her appearance certainly offers coherence in the creative couture.
“So you’re here to see the bulls, eh?” she says in rapid Spanish.
I nod affirmatively. “Yes, I’m covering them for an American magazine.”
“I don’t much like the bulls myself. It’s a cruel thing, la corrida.”
I say that I’m sorry to hear that, which immediately seems to me like a very stupid thing to say. Why would she care that I’m sorry? She didn’t seem particularly sorry herself. Nevertheless, my apology doesn’t appear to have any effect because she is already off…hopping through the traffic and gesturing impatiently for me to follow. As she walks she waves animatedly in the direction of things she thinks I ought to see during my trip. She points to churches, monuments, restaurants, pathways, and museums. She recommends so many things in such a short walk that by the time I arrive at the flat I have forgotten almost everything.
She offers me an efficient, if slightly brisk, tour around my accommodation: that’s there, this is here, and that other thing is over there. And, as Prado makes for the door she but ten seconds ago entered, she quickly turns around, and with a knowing, almost bating, smile says to me, “Good luck with the bulls. I hope they help you to understand Spain a bit better.”
* * *
Be apprised that if you have any desire to write about an event like this, it is almost certain you’ll be confronted with some pretty difficult questions before you go, from almost everyone you encounter:
“Why write about such a barbarity?”
“Do you like the bullfight?”
“Do you think it is moral?”
“Do you know what they do to the bulls?”
“Are you some sort of medieval idiot?”
It seems that these questions (justifiably so, I believe, despite my grumbling) are part and parcel of bullfighting and act like a moral surcharge on top of the financial price of the ticket. However, they can often be incredibly difficult questions to answer, especially if you’re not concretely sure of your opinion of la corrida. Indeed, I think it’s why I still get flummoxed, bashful, and guilty when I am confronted with the slightest bit of negativity (including even an ambiguous farewell from a little-known woman) toward my decision to stomach this phenomenon. And I guess it is the reason why I have come here: to give myself an answer to all those scathing looks and to rid myself of all the uncomfortable internal ambiguities I have created.
However, I decide to forget Prado for now—she has already gone, her presence so sudden and abrupt, like a series of short, unpunctuated sentences read far too quickly—and head out to the bullring, where it is possible I may find that answer.
* * *
As I hit the street the air is heavy with perfume and cologne. Indeed, lurking in the gaps between the bustling crowd and in every crevice of every man, it sprays the morning with the smell of healthy wealth and affords it the ambience of after-shower. Such an odor is instantly identifiable, for it is that particular smell which suggests sagacity, but in fact reeks of a generic exclusivity, or at the very least, whiffs of the wish to attain it. Perhaps more recognizable, however, is the image that socially articulates the fragrance. The picture of a man freshly pressed, straight-out-of-the-packet starched, improbably angled, and well shoed. And the hair: that secret Mediterranean marvel, inch-thick and slicked in unevaporating moistness; not a dry hair until five a.m. the next morning. The women, too, seem to have received the same invite to the fiesta, and the same notes for dress: pastel, posh, and Polo (by Ralph Lauren). And like the men who hide their differences of shape and size in boxy sport jackets, the women sunglass themselves into similarity, with chunky Chanels and gigantic Guccis that obscure differences into homogeneity.
It strikes me as odd that an event largely based on dress, or the history of it at least, should be populated by a very parochial selection of preppy, aristocratic boredom. But in a way, this might actually be part of the point. For how dramatic the bejewelled buttock of the torero—bullfighter—and the frills and forlorn of the flamenco dancers will seem now. In two hours, when the fight starts and the torero is encircled by 5,000 people, his dress, which is nothing but an echo of his art, will separate him from the quotidian reality of the audience. The art should always take precedence; after all, it is quite rare that a person attends the theater dressed as his or her favorite character.
Down the busy main street, which begins at the whitewashed cathedral and ends at the town’s main square, people gather and hoard square footage, stockpiling and speculating on spaces that will undoubtedly have greater value when the procession begins. Indeed, so congested and primed with drunkenness is the street that I decide now might be a good time to see the rest of the town. So, sneaking off down a narrow cobbled street and then through the town’s gardens that lead to its natural end, I resolve to take in Ronda from its periphery.
From the viewing platform, the town’s much less glamorous version of the Grand Canyon Skywalk, Ronda appears structurally improbable, perched precariously as it is on a great cliff-cum-canyon that rises imperiously above its surroundings. Indeed, so alarmingly positioned is the town that at certain moments, during the passing of a particularly powerful car for instance, I feel as if it might just topple off the edge. From here I can also see one of the iconic bridges of Ronda (there are three in total), all of which reach over the Tajo Canyon and connect both parts of the town.
On the way back to the center of town, I move through narrow, winding streets and between whitewashed houses. These streets, which seem to dribble down the hills, lull me into a laid-back saunter. I stop at regular intervals to peer into the bars and shops along the way, stealing glances through open doors and uncurtained windows. I see old men haggard by time, puffing contemplatively on fat cigars, and wives harangued by domestic responsibilities irritated while mopping their front doorsteps. It is in this moment, without any cars or indicators of modernity, that one might be in 1960s Spain, and in which I can imagine the slow movement of the town and hear the raucous cheer of the crowd as an Ordóñez cuts two ears off the bull one rowdy Ronda evening.
At mention of such a surname I should really say that for the majority of Spanish people, even those who do not care for the events of the plaza, the Goyesca of Ronda is a thing of the Ordóñezs, and that to speak of Ronda is also to reference the most famous family in the world of la corrida. The Ordóñezes have been coming out of Ronda and saturating the bullfighting scene with great bloody success since the early twentieth century. El Niño de Palma, Cayetano Ordóñez, came first (his life was fictionalized in Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises). His son Antonio Ordóñez followed, founding the Goyesca in 1954 with his brother Cayetano to commemorate the bicentenary of the birth of Pedro Romero. Francisco Rivera—Paquirri—the stepson of Antonio, came and went briefly, killed by a bull in Cordoba in 1984. Today, Paquirri’s sons, the great-grandsons’ sons of El Nino de Palma, carry on the name—Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, who now organizes the event, and his Armani model/matador brother, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.
It is both the draw of these names and the beauty of the town and the stadium that has attracted the best of bullfighting since its inception. The Ordoñezes pride themselves on booking the most skilful bullfighters (this has been made somewhat easier by the fact that many of them are family members) and convincing the best ganaderias—bull breeders—to provide their prime crop of bulls, this year’s batch coming from the most famous of breeders, Juan Pedro Domecq. However, as this is a sort of extended family event, tickets for the Goyesca are notoriously difficult to come by. Of late, the attendance of models, presenters, and journalists, along with the likes of Nicolas Sarkozy and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, reflects the global pulling power of the festival. However, such celebrity is not new. Orson Welles was a frequent attendee and a good friend of Antonio Ordoñez. Indeed, a little-known fact about the great actor is that his ashes are scattered over his family’s estate on the outskirts of Ronda. The mystery and allure of the Goyesca is based largely on the fact that it emits that particular type of superiority that makes you feel grateful for just being there, that in spite of paying the extortionate price of the ticket, you are still indebted for your presence among the elite of la corrida.
* * *
As I head toward the festivities, back through the ornamental gardens, I see the bullring. La Maestranza de Ronda, as the plaza is officially known, is Spain’s oldest bullring. It was designed by Martin de Aldehuela, the same architect who designed the newest of Ronda’s three bridges, and was completed in 1785. Looking up at the sandstone structure, with its monumental scheme, Arabic patios, and a wonderfully simplistic two-tier design, it is not difficult to understand why it is Spain’s third most visited tourist attraction. On its Colgate-white walls, which sweep round in a perfect circle, are the giant feria carteles—the posters that explain who will be performing in the upcoming corrida and which farms the bulls will be coming from. This year’s Goyesca will be fought by the mercurial but immensely gifted matador de toros, Morante de la Puebla, whose journey here has not been without controversy. Little less than a month ago he suffered a goring that endangered not only his prospects of being here, but his life, too. However, in true heroic form, Morante will return to the ring this evening, hoping that his bravery has not escaped from the still-gaping hole in his leg.
“Aqui viene Morante!”—Here comes Morante. A series of shouts begins to break out across the crowd and people shuffle into positions they are not entirely sure are good—the direction from which Morante’s carriage will arrive is not yet known. Then I hear the ring of bells and the faint, rhythmic clip-clopping of horse hooves. Bands start and the evening is presaged by its first pained gypsy cry, which shoots up into the sky like a tortured firework. The horses and carts come into view. Decked in bright colors and an assortment of bells, they proceed down the main street and toward the courtyard at the back of the bullring. Inside these carriages are the Spanish equivalents of American beauty queens, faces of the pageant, so to speak. All of them are done up in period costume. Following the paintings of Goya, they wear ornate dresses of varying colors along with mantillas (traditional Spanish headdresses) that in some cases look like garish wedding cakes. As these carriages pass safely out of sight, the heightened, anxious excitement of the crowd portends the arrival of the next set of carriages, those that hold the torero Morante de la Puebla and his team. However, there is none of the hysteria that I had initially expected. I have heard and read stories about matadors having the same effect on fans that the Beatles had on many of theirs. Here, there are shouts of well wishing, gentle pats of the hand and back of the carriage, and the occasional thrown flower, but little else. It seems to me that this subdued reception is indicative of respect—respect for a man who is about to risk his life.
I manage to wrestle my way to the front of the crowd, and the first thing I see is his famous sideburns, like two lamb chops set on either side of his face. His hair is long, dark, and greased back into the matador’s ponytail-la coleta. His narrow eyes are set deep into his face, owl-like, and seem to hide from the baying public under the ridge of his brow. He wears a slightly dulled blue traje with black frilled adornments. Compared to the rest of his team—all pinks, greens, and oranges—Morante, the main man, seems a little sartorially subdued. But he also seems calm, his gentle and measured body language seemingly defiant of a face prematurely aged by horns, hooves and fear.
I then remember something I read about the great matador Manolete. The American writer and torero Barnaby Conrad tells of a time when he took a girlfriend of his to see Manolete during the ritual dressing of the traje de luces (the normal uniform of the torero outside of the Goyesca). Conrad said that on arrival to the hotel room the girl proclaimed loudly, and in front of Manolete, that “she had no interest in a joker who hurts little bulls.” Hearing this, Manolete replied, with little more than a shy look on his face and certainly no sign of fear, “Excuse me, señorita, if I don’t talk much, but I am very scared.” And so as Morante de la Puebla passes me by I quietly wish him luck and head to find my seat in the plaza.
* * *
The third bull of the afternoon, named Canalla, enters the ring—big, black, strong, and disorientated. With quick head movements—right, left, front, back—it tries to take in everything at once: the sand, the sun, the crowd, the noise. It circles and flicks its tail as it contemplates the empty arena and the heaving crowd. It lets out a pleading moo of misunderstanding and then charges aggressively at thin air. Yet still no man enters the ring to confront it. Obviously bewildered, and breathing more heavily now, the bull trots to the center of the ring, where it waits, with something of a dramatic irony, for the beginning of what will undoubtedly be its end.
A loud hand smack of the wooden barrier and a swish from the cape of a banderillero (a man who is part of the matador’s entourage) and the bull launches itself, galloping to destroy what dares to confront it. Yet as it comes steaming toward the place of the noise, the man slips deftly in behind the burladero (the wooden barrier behind which the matadors hide) and the bull, unable to stop, clatters its horns into the unsatisfying wood.
And out steps Morante, shouting “Toro, toro” in a deep bellow.
The bull turns its hulking mass in a slow and measured movement, and stops.
“Toro, toro,” Morante barks again. This time the bull doesn’t hesitate and it charges. So commences his dangerous afternoon.
With great tranquillity Morante receives the bull like one might open a gate to let someone pass, absorbing all the bull’s energy in a slow and tempered movement and spinning it around in readiness for another charge. And another charge it does give. This time Morante stands completely still: feet planted together, he accepts the bull into the cape, and with a swivel of his hips and violent flick of his wrist he envelops his lower half in material, curving the bull’s trajectory and bringing its horns within inches of his legs.
“Olé!” screams the crowd.
Morante repeats this several more times, each capping swish more lurid, each whipping wrist more vehement, and each facial expression more contorted than its antecedent. And then he stops, and in the campy strut of the matador walks to the crowd and almost demands their interest—which they gladly give him. On the other side of the ring, excluded and exhausted, the bull looks on: slack-jacked and tongue-loose with confusion.
Now, the trumpet sounds and in trot the picadors, wearing tight-fitting jackets, beige-colored trousers, and beaver-skinned hats called castoreños. They carry long and sharply spiked varas (lances) and ride hefty, slow-moving horses laden with heavy armor and blindfolded with what look like ripped bed sheets. The picadors are both fat men and spill their excess weight symmetrically over each side of their saddles. Jostling and steering their horses strenuously into position, they eventually face each other on opposite sides of the ring. Morante is happy and signals to his banderillos, who in the meantime have been occupying the bull, to stop.
“Oi, oi, toro, oiiiiiii,torrro!”
The picador closest to my side of the ring begins to heckle the bull in deep gravelly burps. He waves his lance wildly above his head, as if in some act of atavistic remembrance to the caveman, and has his horse stamp aggressively on the ground. However, to this first furore the bull appears indifferent, almost mocking, glancing for a brief, bemused moment before focusing on something infinitely more interesting at its feet. And so the man has to begin again. He screams, “Torrrrooo, oiiii, oiiii, torrrrrro,” and the frenzied lance-flailing is even more frantic than before.
And still nothing. This time the bull actually turns its back on the fat, fretting, and now heavily booed picador. But in its rotation the bull notices something, a sudden movement perhaps, for its ears prick and it enters into a living rigor mortis…which is short-lived. A cloud of sand is kicked up and the next thing I notice is the sound of the bull crashing into the opposite horse, almost dismounting the unready picador.
Muscles straining, legs pumping, and horns threatening, both horse and bull are locked in a stasis, until the bull relents and swings away to give itself room for another charge. This time, however, the ungainly picador is now slightly gainlier and ready with his lance for the bull’s second assault. This time, when the bull approaches the horse, the picador’s lance plunges forcefully into the morillo (the large muscle that sits behind the bull’s head) with the full weight of the very weighty picador going down through the lance’s shaft and into the hulk of the bull’s neck. The blood spurts and begins to stream, while the crowd screams for the picador’s precision.
Once Morante is sufficiently satisfied that enough bull weakening has been achieved, he calls the picadors off and signals to the president of the festival to begin the second tercio. Act Two is that of the banderillas, which, as Hemingway describes in Death in the Afternoon, “are pairs of sticks about a yard long, seventy centimeters to be exact, with a large harpoon-shaped steel point four centimeters long at one end,” which are stuck into the bull’s back. This job is normally performed by the banderilleros but can be performed by the matador if he is particularly skilled in this discipline.
The tercio happens without significant note. The six sticks are stuck skillfully and bravely into the back of the bull by the banderilleros and the crowd is generous with its applause. Yet, compared to the drama witnessed earlier, it seems to me that this part of the spectacle is more like the halftime show at a basketball game—its connection to the event is the breather it offers the main performers.
With this mildly bloody respite over, the president and his brass-band accompaniment signal the end of the second tercio and the beginning of the final. The crowd reengage. This stage is called the tercio de muerte (the third of death). First, the matador dedicates the bull to a member of his family, a friend, or to the audience as a whole. Then he reenters the ring alone, with a small red cape, la muleta. This part is known among aficionados as the faena (the display) and is where the art of la corrida exists.
As Morante walks out to the center of the ring, the bull looks on in a manner that seems disobedient to the possibility of its death. It strains its neck into the position of salute, of stiff-upper-lip insouciance, which denies the deep wounds that pockmark its barn-door-sized back. I turn to the man at my side and whisper the first words I have spoken to him all evening: “Este toro es muy obstinado. Tiene agallas.” This bull is very stubborn. He has guts. The man smiles at me, nods, and then takes his time to respond.
“No,” he says, continuing in Spanish. “This bull has more than guts; he has art—the most important thing that a bull has to have.”
I pause to think about this for a second. Does he mean that in its refusal to acknowledge death it is in some way artful, that singular bravery in a moment can be compared with other forms of artistic endeavor? However, I cannot discuss it at any length, as over on the other side of the ring the bull charges, the galling twitch of the muleta too tempting to investigate, too necessary to destroy, and too intriguing not to watch.
This time Morante intercepts the bull with distance: his right arm extended and his knees slightly bent, so that he seems like an affected waiter asking a customer to take a seat. The bull stops just before the wooden barrier and lets out a short, snot- and blood-filled exhale, a death sneeze. Turning its large, punctured frame, it shirks off the banderilla fringe that now hangs between its horns and lines itself up for another charge. It goes and Morante responds: holding the muleta in his right hand, and with his left grasping the wooden barrier that encircles the ring, he goads the bull into a space seemingly impossible to escape. At that moment my mind conjures pictures of the human dartboard that might result. However, Morante is too skilled to be impaled standing still and with his arm fully extended away from his body, he presents the muleta like a teasing stage curtain that opens and then closes, then opens again, in a series of bull-irritating jolts that always allude to the presence of the actor but never actually show him. Then with a twirl of the cape he frees himself from the barrier and opens up a new series of passes. Standing rigid in a sort of dramatized teapot pose, hand on hip and jutting arse, he uses the rag to envelop himself in the bull’s full mass. The animal draws circles in the arena sand with the matador as the guiding compass.
Then the music starts. And Morante is able to make the bull dance. Both man and beast rock back and forth; as the man flicks his wrist the bull rears its body; as the man slowly pirouettes the bull follows him around. Oblivious to their surroundings, both the bull and the man continue to dance in what seems to me like the rhythm of self-preservation, for one wrong move from either partner could result in death. A mistake from the matador, and that masculinity now so engorged by the crowd will shrink and hemorrhage into the sand like the blood from his wound; a mistake from the bull, and the matador will decide that the fight is over and that the bull must die. And, as is usual in la corrida, the bull is the one to make the first blunder.
After the measured walk to his cuadrilla to collect the killing sword, la estocada, and completing the necessary positioning passes to put the bull in the most comfortable spot for the kill, Morante lines up today’s nemesis. His sword is held in his right hand and out in front of his body, the muleta gently swaying and kept low to the ground by his left. He stands on the balls of his feet so that he is able to look over the bull’s horns and to his target spot. He contorts his face aggressively as he breathes, as if these angry breaths might allow him to draw in the sufficient courage he needs. And then with a final grunt and swish of the cape he jumps into the bull, which, at the behest of the moving cape, jumps into him. The bull’s charge is straight and true, and the matador’s is a more cunning curve, and while the man misses the horns, the bull does not miss the sword; it sits up to its hilt in bovine muscle.
The bull sneezes blood from its nose and pisses involuntarily from its penis; it moans and it bays. But its breathing, more rapid now, seems to indicate its intention to pant and puff itself away from its own mortality. Yet this is not the case, as I see its bulk slump into a depression, a depression toward the ground and to its death. And then it just drops to the floor. Dead.
In its final glimpses at a crowd hungry for its destiny I wonder, was it aware of its artificiality, of having spent six years of utter bovine luxury in preparation for twenty minutes of bovine hell? I suspect not. And so as it hits the sand like the rest of its brothers, as it closes its eyes for the final time, it will never know that its defiance brought it esteem, and that it will be remembered.
He had been a good bull, says the man next to me. He had a great desire to survive.
“Yes,” I reply, “but I suppose to this crowd death is more artful.”
We both wave our white pañuelos (handkerchiefs), pleading for the two ears of the bull that are awarded by the president to signify a good fight, but wishing for the indulto (the pardoning of the bull’s life) that so emphatically did not happen on this occasion, but that would signify an even greater fight.
* * *
Four hours after the end of the fight, I’m in a bar five minutes from the bullring. I came straight here after I watched the last of the blood swept from the arena floor and haven’t left since. It is packed with gin-and-tonic’d enthusiasm and many exaggerated stories. Men lurch and stagger, imitating the much more subtle leans and sways of the fight, children run in patterns around the room like toy train sets, and the once immaculate hair, shirts, and dresses of the morning have been unravelled by frivolity. The atmosphere is warm and familiar, but unfortunately I, perhaps as a result of my red-wined apathy, am left a bit cold and lonely. I have been to many bullfights before, but there is something about this particular one, this particular festival, that is far more affecting.
I could say it was the quality of la corrida itself, or perhaps the opportunity to see one of my favorite matadors perform in front of a crowd that loved him, that has made this festival distinct and more affecting than the others I have seen before. However, these would be purely superficial reasons. What really makes this event different is its history, or rather its treatment of such a history. Indeed, attending the Goyesca at Ronda is very much like being transported to another time, or more specifically, out of time. It seems the event has the intention of perpetually searching for and revitalizing nostalgia, for not only do the attendees celebrate the life of Pedro Romero (this commemoration being a more general celebration of bullfighting), but they also celebrate the existence of the event itself. To wear the Goyesca costume of Pedro Romero is to step into the sweat and the blood of past matadors’ achievements, into the words of Hemingway and under the gaze of Orson Welles. For when success is had in the ring at Ronda, the effect is more powerful than at other events of this type. This is because, at the Goyesca, triumph in the present seems to allow a more profound remembrance of the past, and then again a more insightful appreciation of the present. The success of Francisco Rivera Ordóñez, in recent years, has made crowds remember the achievements of his grandfather Antonio Ordóñez, which in turn has educated and refined the nature of Francisco’s feats. In the end, the effect is that they become one and the same person in time, a symbol of the family. This all results in making the event, and particularly the Ordóñez family, seem as if it is atemporal, where all time is celebrated and understood at once.
And perhaps it is this sheer weight of history served up so instantaneously that has made the always easily avoided question all but unavoidable. The question that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue whenever the bullfight is mentioned: how does one begin to understand and position the killing of a sentient creature as a cultural event?
To soften the pain of the internal pinches that come when trying to address this question, I order one of those enthusiasm-filled gin and tonics, open my notepad, and begin to write…
La corrida has no internal logic or an end result—neither the matador nor the bull wins if either one dies. In this sense it is pointless. However, from what I can see the spectacle’s intention is to artfully recreate and represent aspects of the human condition. And in la corrida the art is the possibility of death.
The eloquence, exuberance, and precision of the matador’s movements both articulate and hold off mortality. Indeed, within this context, they might be considered akin to the painter’s brushstrokes, flicking and capping their way to melancholia, or some such other emotion. However, contrary to the abstractions emanating from the artist’s paint, la corrida makes its message concise, palpable, possible, and, most important, real: death, for either the bull or the man.
In this sense one might say it is a microcosm of the absurdity we all encounter throughout our day-to-day lives: that existence is pointless, but that in order to fight against the otiose, we find beauty and we live it well to make it worthwhile. In the words of Morante de la Puebla, “all that lives in this life can live in one day in the art of toreo. The sacrifice, the triumph, and the failure—in the ring they all live together.”
Yet for me la corrida is more than this; it is more peculiar and harder to identify, because it straddles, dandified and dripping in blood, the limbo of the real and the intangible. Indeed, the instantaneity of its art, in comparison to other artistic mediums, permits it to leap out of what it is we consider art to be, out of mere abstraction and reflection to become, as it does so, a hyper-art.
I don’t want the use of “hyper-art” to be misconstrued as a synonym for “better,” but rather to be read as more effective and efficient in the delivery of its message. For if the purpose of art, in the most general sense, is to provide us with reflections, criticism, and commentaries on the current state of existence, then where but in the ceremony and custom of the bullring might one see a better version of humanity’s brutality and bravery? By no means do I offer its efficacy as an art form as a moral justification of the event itself. I do see how its paradox—the utter encapsulation of death and life in the frame of a limited and structured artistic event—divides opinion so markedly. And I do see that the delivery of brutality dressed up in fancy clothing and pranced around by penis-bulging matadors could be quite repugnant.
I have seen many corridas that have made me think of what a disgusting event it is. Yet, I have also seen corridas of beauty and of great heroism from the matador. I have been in the ring myself with a cow and felt the fear that comes when an animal charges full-speed toward you with no thought of who or what you are. I can gladly say that I did not have to kill the animal, but as a result, I do have an inkling, and therefore a great amount of respect, for what it might take to remain still while a twelve-hundred-pound equivalent does the same thing.
I see both sides of the argument and could easily say that I am stuck in an uncomfortable ambivalence. The truth is, I haven’t yet succeeded in working out any sort of personal ethical system in which I can allow myself to believe that it is right to keep returning to the bullring. The ambivalence I offer is really only a symptom of my fear of the decision that confronts anyone who witnesses this phenomenon: are you for or are you against it? And you have to make this decision, for in La Plaza de Toros there are no acrylic’d allusions toward morality, just the real bloodied footsteps to a brutal glory, a place where one must decide whether they are repulsed by the blood or inspired by its glory.
With that I put my pen down, drain the last drops of my drink, and get up to leave. As I walk past the bar, I thank the waiter and tell him I will be back again next year. I have my answer.
* * *
Matthew Bremner is a writer and journalist from Scotland but is based in Madrid. He has written for ArtReview, Timeout London, The New Wolf, Planet Ivy, and cofounded the Newturn Magazine.