I knew very little about Víctor Barrio before, slightly hungover, I was asked by BBC World News on the morning of 10 July last year to comment on his televised death. It was the first time a matador had died in a professional Spanish bullfight since 1985. I’d spent a number of summers going to corridas when I was researching a book on the cultural politics of Spain’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s, and became convinced that bullfighting was an underexplored chapter in this history. Barrio, I hazily recalled, had been a prodigious novillero (an apprentice who takes on younger bulls), but had struggled for engagements since graduating as a bullfighter in 2012. This was just the way things were: the figuras have a monopoly on appearances in the country’s most lucrative bullrings. I kept missing the BBC researcher’s calls and went back to nursing my hangover.
The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 15 · 27 July 2017
Reading Duncan Wheeler’s Diary, admittedly with interest but also distaste and even anger, it struck me that the LRB would never allocate space to a comparable meditation on foxhunting by a hunt supporter, this pursuit having none of the high-flown mystique of the bullfight that fascinates a certain kind of dissociative intellect (LRB, 13 July).
Of course I’m not arguing here for a platform for foxhunting, which has arcane justifications of its own anyway, or for any other bloodsport. I’m merely pointing out to my own satisfaction that Duncan Wheeler, though he writes well and coolly, seems, like others, to have ring-fenced a numb area in his sensibilities so as to avoid compromising the affectless integrity of his imaginative freedom.
Others correspondents rightly take issue with what they perceive as textual mistakes and misrepresentations and the like. I write picturing a dazed, crazed and bloodied bull facing certain death, while up in the stands a professor of Spanish, doubtless of fine mind and spotless character, enjoys the subtleties of the matador’s personality and performance, his nonchalance and disdain particularly appreciable by the connoisseur.
Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017
John Charlesworth has every right to express his ‘distaste and even anger’, both at bullfighting and at my diary of attending taurine events (Letters, 27 July). He is on less sure footing, though, when he notes that the LRB would not provide a forum for a comparable meditation on foxhunting by a ‘hunt supporter’. Leaving aside Ferdinand Mount’s description of bloodsport in the English countryside (in a piece on Siegfried Sassoon in the LRB of 7 August 2003), there’s no reason to assume that writing about bullfighting means advocating for it. For the record, my position is that bulls and horses undoubtedly suffer in the ring, but that their fate is far from the worst thing to befall animals in Europe. If banning bullfighting is to be more than tokenistic scapegoating, it must be part of an overdue reappraisal of our relationship with the animal kingdom.
At the risk of providing further evidence of the ‘affectless integrity’ of my ‘imaginative freedom’, I should disclose that one of the reasons for my continued attendance at corridas is that the debates around its past, present and future raise wider ethical and aesthetic questions. Protesters frequently brandish banners saying, ‘It isn’t culture, it’s torture,’ while parts of the bullfighting lobby tragicomically underplay the suffering endured by humans and animals alike. Some, though by no means all, of what I have witnessed in Spanish plazas constitutes culture by any definition, occasionally of a high order. Acknowledging that doesn’t rule out moral objections, and Charlesworth’s implication that it does says more about the reification of culture than about my ‘dissociative intellect’. Still, I am grateful for his assumption that I am of ‘fine mind and spotless character’, the phrase in his letter that provoked most incredulity among my friends and colleagues.
University of Leeds