Sunday, October 9, 2011

Scenes From a Bullfight

I was trolling for interesting news when I came upon a piece about a bullfighter who was gored in the face by a bull (and survived). I don't think I've ever read an article before in which every single line, if read carefully, was in itself disturbing. A sleeper in that bunch was one line mentioning the name and weight of the bull, the fact that it was the second "fighting beast" the bullfighter had dealt with that afternoon, and that the nasty business took place during the "Virgen del Pilar festivities." I'm assuming that the latter were religious observances.

I admit that my attention is--perhaps perversely--attracted by this sort of thing. It's not that I like to see anyone injured; it's more a fascination with things rarely seen--the unusual, especially grisly things which, I'm glad to say, I've seen very little of in my life. So for me they are a real-life oddity.

In Iraq, Chechnya, Sudan, and other war-torn areas, I imagine this story might not make the news at all. In the safety of my warm office, I have the luxury of not only reading it, but thinking philosophically about it.

I began wondering how bullfighting as a spectacle could be tolerated to such a degree that the particulars of this story, while gruesome, can be discussed with such unaffected distance. A goring is not an unheard of outcome for bullfights, in fact. When I was around eight years old, my mother took me to the bullfights in Mexico City, along with some friends who were visiting from the United States. I'll never forget the sight of a man being whirled around like a little floppy propeller on the tip of a bull's horn.

For those of my readers who may be unfamiliar with the protocol at these events, here it is in a nutshell:

First a trumpet announces the beginning of the games, and all the human players parade into the bullring to triumphant music. In come a squad of nameless guys with capes whose job it is to taunt, irritate, confuse and distract the bull. They are to bullfights what rodeo clowns are to rodeos. Of all the players involved, these are the ones most often seen running from the bull and jumping behind barriers to save their lives.

Behind them come the banderilleros, who will each tag the bull on the neck with two short decorative spears--called banderillas, or "flaglets," sporting the colors associated with the ranch proudly supplying the bull. The banderillas have barbed tips that help them stick in the bull's flesh and remain for the duration, flailing wildly as the bull moves. 

Next the picadores, the fat, mounted pike-wielders, ride out on stout horses wearing blinders and thick protective padding. These guys are always booed--and understandably so, considering their role is to approach the bull from a superior position and jab a long blunt spear into his neck, precisely at the spine, in order to dull his wits and weaken him.

Finally the matadores (literally, "killers") march proudly into the ring, to roaring applause and cheers. They're followed and flanked by their own personal circle of guys with capes--the last resort and only recourse for a bullfighter who's lost control of the bull. If and when the goring starts, they will rush in to distract the bull so the injured matador can be rescued.

Then everyone exits the ring and a door opens to release one of the most spirited, powerful embodiments of masculine energy and fearless spirit on earth. The bull explodes into the ring, stopping and turning, spraying sand and charging in all directions. The guys with capes start their work, and the games begin. In ritual order, the players make their appearance, each taking a little of the bull's spirit and energy. Finally, the matador faces the bull directly (something none dare attempt when the bull first comes into the ring).

There is both skill and danger involved in the final act of slaying the bull, and both are in direct proportion to the condition of the bull at the time. Some bulls are quite exhausted and disoriented; others are keen and furious. The fight in this report ended badly for the human player. With very rare exceptions, it always ends badly for the animal players (even the picadores' horses may get bruised and injured).

One can't help assuming this bull was summarily dispatched with an efficiency and sangfroid that in literature are the central attributes ascribed to a serial killer. I wonder again, how such a spectacle could possibly be considered not only tolerable, but culturally normal. Unlike the spectators of dogfights or cockfights, most of the people attending bullfights are average, churchgoing, respected members of their communities. When I was a kid, bullfights were televised, like regular sporting events.

I see this phenomenon as a vestige of a more barbaric time--hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago--when humans were put into a similar ring, to fight each other to the death for a crowd's amusement. That became unacceptable at some point, so the organizers removed one human and inserted a fierce animal. For now this remains acceptable in some places, but we're evolving as a species. We're starting to find cruelty and suffering intolerable at deeper and deeper levels, and in wider and wider circles. Humans and animals have both begun to enjoy some rights--among humans.

Who knows how far our evolutionary trend of slowly awakening, becoming more conscious, less brutal, and more kind, will go. But it's definitely afoot. We're on our way upward as a species. Ascent is in our genes.

That's the good part of all this.


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