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.

Raising bulls was excellent for agriculture, some said; it ruined it, others retorted. It was good for working-class morals because the lower orders saved up responsibly to attend a virile, patriotic spectacle, while class-mixing in the stands made Spanish society ‘the most democratic in the world’ and compensated for the deferential drudgery of the working week; alternatively, it encouraged the squandering of hard-earned wages on a vulgar carnage that was also an apprenticeship of disrespect, threatening the principle of authority – a matter of special concern to 19th-century élites. For when the bulls behaved like lambs, or an expensive matador let his subordinates do all the work, or the president, usually some ignorant civil notable, made an unpopular decision, then the public vented its rage with impunity, yelling abuse and lobbing oranges, bottles, fire-darts, benches, even dogs and cats into the ring. A ringside riot could turn into a political one. In 1835, during the Carlist wars, the mob stormed out of the arena and began torching churches. Shubert makes a neat sideways link here with the democratic urban experience of the ‘crowd’ as a new phenomenon, part threat, part thrill, that became familiar in the rest of Europe and America rather later. ‘Week after week, or even day after day, thousands of people headed to a single place with a single purpose; to see the bullfight. An unexceptional fact, but not in the 18th century ... Going to a bullfight was an eminently modern experience.’

Even though the matadors were always struggling for the upper hand against the other two forces in the industry – ranchers and promoters – they were the world’s first overpaid popular stars. It is true that they had to support a cuadrilla (the team of banderilleros and picadors who were originally juniors, on the artisan model), but by the late 19th century top names like Lagartijo could command shocking sums. In 1882 he earned 600,000 reals, five times more than the president of the Supreme Court. In England, the annual salary of a professional cricketer was £275 – roughly equal to Lagartijo’s fee for a single fight. A bit of danger, then, was hardly likely to deter the young dreamers from the urban fringes who made up most of the aspirants. And there was the guarantee of sex and glamour. Angel ‘Camisero’ Carmona, who worked in a shirt shop as a child, saw so many toreros swan in ‘with their tight-fitting trousers showing everything God gave them ... and their necklaces hung with monumental lockets covered in innumerable and luminous gems, so very stylish and bullfighterish’, that he decided to become one himself.

Until the 1840s or thereabouts, the tight pants went with a flash, disreputable lifestyle which the more priggish commentators blamed on the class origin of the fighters. The first matador to gain respectability, and even a royal audience with Isabella II, was Francisco Montes. After that, bullfighters started dressing like everybody else and ‘favouring cocktails’ as opposed to gallons of wine. A nostalgic journalist complained that they had become ‘as knowledgeable as anyone about the state of government bonds’. Most toreros seemed proud to be posh. The banderilleros’ union proclaimed: ‘No more carousing! We have abandoned the tavern, and we read books.’

The main reason the corrida survived so much disapproval (with animal protection societies contributing to the row only from around 1870) was that it produced unrenounceable wealth. During the 18th century, the Maestranzas Reales – aristocratic clubs devoted to horsemanship – hospital commissions, public welfare bodies and even churches had permission from the Crown to hold regular fights or occasional benefits, and had then become dependent on the proceeds. ‘Much like government lotteries today’, Shubert tells us, bullfights were ‘a comfortable alternative to taxation that usually trumped any qualms officials had about their non-monetary value’. As for the fans, they just kept on paying. They ignored calls for consumer strikes against the many forms of corruption in the game, as well as bans mooted by high-minded governments in 1768, 1786 and 1805. Early prohibitions were based on a paternalistic view of the fans’ welfare that was economic as well as moral. But by the 19th century, laissez-faire and mass entertainment were recasting attitudes throughout society. The latter part of the century saw an explosive growth in the bullfighting business, vindicating a prophecy made in 1865: ‘The curses of the humanitarians will be silenced by the proofs of the economists.’

It’s harder, in the light of all this, to view the corrida as a timeless expression of the Spanish soul, whether for good or ill; and yet there are plenty of other souls from which it could scarcely be more remote. No North American spectacle could be built round such a tragic, feel-bad teleology, or accord such prominence to genealogy. Today even the toreros, once paragons of self-made Spanish manhood, mostly issue from a privileged handful of matador or rancher lineages. (Dynastic dementia: until recently, when a bull was smart enough to kill a man, the dam was slaughtered in an act of genetic misogyny.) But perhaps it’s because death is not a hazard so much as the whole point of the thing, for all contenders in their different ways, that when the brass squeals out and the costumed men and horses pace solemnly into the arena, something catches at your throat in the certainty that an extraordinary emotional rite is about to take place.

This expectation is usually disappointed. A. L. Kennedy’s first bullfight inspires a terrific account of your average corrida, which is a blundering, casually brutal affair that drags on and on, while today’s well-heeled audience boos or cheers half-heartedly between sips of gin and tonic. Kennedy hadn’t had many thoughts about bullfighting before she was commissioned to write the book. It had been a nasty show of ‘boys in spangled satin and slippers stifflegging it through their required paces’ – the classic dismissal with sexist and Northern undertones. But a failed suicide attempt, relived in Chapter One, and the persistence of writer’s block, persuaded her that the project could become an interesting investigation into the nature of risk, chance, and living with death postponed.

Her long essay is satisfyingly truffled with considerations on ethics, religion, culture and psychology. She takes pains to clarify for sensitive readers that bullfighters are not psychopaths pulling the wings off very large flies: the proceedings in the plaza ‘have a great deal to do with both a personal and a wider kind of faith, an intermingling of fear, superstition, Catholic iconography and both Christian and pre-Christian urges to understand the termination of life and to celebrate survival’. There are absorbing accounts of the revolution in technique and feeling pioneered by the great bullfighter Juan Belmonte in the 1920s and 1930s, of dressing-room rituals and the peculiarities of bovine eyesight: it seems that having eyes at the side of the head gives bulls ‘a large blind area ... directly to the front’. She gets queasily close to the point when she compares the intuitive work of Monty Roberts, the New Age American horse-breaker, with what a very few men and women have done with a very few bulls: ‘the crossing of the species barrier’. ‘But Roberts doesn’t end his interaction with the horse by, for example, shooting it’ – though he does prepare it for a life of servitude. Is the bullfight redeemed or betrayed by the kill? ‘Is the art of the corrida in the close physical relation of two moving forms, or in the threat of death, or can’t the two be separated?’ I think they can’t. Imagine the same degree of teasing, wounding and thwarting without the unshaven horns threatening retribution or the tragic climax – corrida Portuguese style. It can only be a spectacle of callous frivolity. And the bull is coshed just the same as soon as it staggers out of sight: it would be very expensive to maintain in the meadow.

But Kennedy’s objectivity is intermittent as she strains, sometimes preposterously, to compete with the theme. ‘In attempting to control death, the toreros and I may have a little in common. We have attempted the impossible, something which stands in the face of nature.’ In Lorca’s mummified Granada home, she touches the light-switch he may have touched on the way to his death, and weeps for daring to call herself a writer. She also identifies with the bull, in a passive, physical way, being tortured throughout her trip by acute pain between the shoulder-blades. In general, she tells us too many things she should not, or not here. The confessional passages, rather than deepening the scope, detract from the writerly accomplishment, on which the writer’s doubts are liberally scattered. The only problem, we silently scream, is that self-laceration – a form of self-aggrandisement, however unintended – intrudes every time we start to get immersed in what she tells so well. Of her pain there is no question: it is bad enough to blind her to the worst effects of self-consciousness. What are we to make of remarks like this, about her bull dreams? ‘They make a good obsession, something solid to drive out less pleasant images. Too many empty hotel rooms can cause depression – if you still count a room as empty with me inside it, which, of course, I do.’ By insisting that the project is desultory, an experiment to find out if she can still hold a pen, she makes us feel we’re being taken for a ride. ‘This is a bullfighting book, there has to be at least one bar.’ The nuts-and-bolts passages (Mithraism, the Minoans) bring twitches of impatience (‘And now I suppose I’d better tell you about ... ’), while people and places in the present are distorted in her bubble of misery. The search for faith being a failure, the last sentence in the book is a sad: ‘I don’t know what to do.’

Perhaps people who struggle with bullfighting – with whatever it is that seems so enticing beneath the guise of a supreme, condensed reality – are taking it all too seriously. We’re unable to face the absolute mundanity of it. We palpitate at what is not really there, at a parade of symbols and a performance of emotion that are fundamentally hollow. The bulls are always slipping over, the matadors display little creative personality and the once seedy, gallant underworld of the culture has cleaned itself up in earnest. Toreros don’t read books any more, they look out for themselves in ¡Hola! magazine. Kennedy says that the corrida, ‘although it has its own rigours and remarkable individual toreros, currently lacks the overarching discipline, creative economy and communicative breadth of an art’. I shall continue going all the same, because I have witnessed, once or twice, something more heart-stopping than any art. So has she. But her most successful account of it, imbued with the serious pleasure that’s so hard to explain, is a description of film footage of Domingo Ortega in 1956, when he was two years into retirement. The audience have called him down from the stands, where he has been sitting in suit and tie, looking like ‘a doctor or a teacher – some distant, monochrome relative, called on to deliver a party piece. But then he begins with the bull and becomes himself.’

Ortega’s movements slip between formality, elegance and play, there is always a great deal of play, of physically evident delight ...

   During the faena he bows, swoops and pirouettes, each action drawing the bull in closer. From time to time Ortega strokes its horn while it passes, looking at him, or smoothes at its side with his palm ... He leads the bull low to left and right, or lifts its head as he wishes, as they both appear to wish. He performs a molinete and then another, swirling the muleta out around him as he turns in something which is more than an adorno – a cheap trick involving no danger – something which is a celebration of this moment, these creatures, this breath, this fine time they are having together. Man and animal, animal and man, they might have known each other all their lives. Watching them, it seems quite possible that this integrated motion might simply continue, that there is no reason for it to ever stop. Even after the sword has gone in clean to the hilt and Ortega has stepped away, the bull skips after him, seems unaware it’s over now.