A Fine Time Together

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight by Adrian Shubert
    Oxford, 280 pp, £15.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 19 509524 3

Most people who are obsessive animal-lovers as children grow out of it. I didn’t. I still feel a helpless identification with most of them, and the scene in Apocalypse Now in which scurrying specks are bombed from helicopters simply made it harder for me to step on ants. So I find it difficult to justify my liking for the bullfight. My excuse – which, I should say, has never convinced anyone – is that of all our dealings with animals, bullfighting at its best seems the most dignified. I was nine when I read the memoirs of the great Peruvian fighter Conchita Cintrón. Fascinated by falconry, and pretty pompous about training the family dog, I was very taken with the technicality of bullfighting – and by Cintrón’s ability to recall vividly, almost lovingly, the details of each creature’s character. Hers was not an adversarial approach, which meant that I was spared the machismo. At my first bullfight years later in Arles, I lapped it up in horror and rapture.

The need to be present throughout the process and to watch it from a single point of view, with everyone else around in a great, single-minded circle, must be one reason it is intolerable on TV. As a mediated spectacle, it’s sanguinary camp. Yet in the mind bullfighting is a powerful metaphor for any number of social and sentimental relations. Death and Money in the Afternoon, however, is impatient about the meanings with which Spaniards and foreigners have mystified the corrida, obscuring the fact that it’s manmade – i.e. has a history. Adrian Shubert’s most bracing contention is that, far from epitomising the anti-modernity periodically mourned by Spanish intellectuals, bullfighting was from the start a sign of advanced capitalism. Rather than confirming Spain as the savage of Europe (Ortega y Gasset identified it as the great symptom of a national pathology he called ‘Tibetanisation’), the corrida represented a mass-marketing of leisure well before baseball or boxing, and its economic logic quite properly defeated every attempt to suppress it.

Bullfighting in its recognisably modern form dates from the Bourbon accession in 1701. The new dynasty was bored by bulls, so the nobles lost interest as well, hung up their lances and abandoned the sport (in the old sense of ‘fun’) to the plebeians, who had always milled about in the background. With the social shift from lancing on horseback to caping on foot, the sport’s centre of gravity moved south. Tastes were turning away from the anarchic, communal buffoonery traditional to the North (and still indulged there, most famously at Pamplona) towards Andalusian aesthetics and drama. The corrida no longer consisted of directionless bull-baiting: it was a three-act progression with a ceremonial climax in death. The writings of the Seville-born matador, José Delgado, alias ‘Pepe Illo’ (1754-1801), were an attempt to regulate and legitimate these changes in the language of the Enlightenment. Anxious to rebuff charges of irrationality and barbarity (barbarity towards humans, that is; as Delgado said, more people die swimming, yet no one talks of banning that), he devised a classification for the manoeuvres of the bull and corresponding cape techniques. The terminologies were those of Nature, Experience and Art. Disdaining his own ‘infallible’ prescriptions, Delgado himself performed with intuitive flamboyance and died in the ring: a contradiction overlooked by Shubert, who documents every other paradox from the 18th century to the early 20th in an engrossing book replete with quotations and anecdotes. But Death and Money in the Afternoon is so loosely structured that the same points are repeated in every chapter, partly because what crude evidence there was about bullfighting in its early years could be interpreted in diametrically opposite ways and used to condemn or to exalt, depending on whether you were a conservative moralist or a liberal (often foreign) progressive. Stuck in the middle were the educated Spanish breast-beaters who didn’t realise they had the most progressive thing going in Europe.

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