My trip to Spain: June and July, 2012.
“The professionals go a little deeper,” our guide said as we were looking at one of the routine Flamenco posters that line store fronts in these Andalusian towns—especially Seville—alongside displays of Flamenco aprons (of all things) and gaudy paper fans.
No further interpretation was needed; I had seen Flamenco in Seville, and the seeing is crucial—words are as irrelevant here as they are when anything extraordinary is displayed. Flamenco is not about swirling skirts and flirtatious glances, or even the Japanese inspired sinuous hand movements or the hip swiveling which came in with the discovery of the New World; it can only be experienced if one is ready for grimness, extreme effort, the disquieting effects of the dancer’s total immersion in her or his experience. I think it is rather like witnessing childbirth, before video cameras and crowds of cheering relatives took the edge off the raw primeval event with its suffering, screams and blood.
There’s only one other event here in Spain that expresses the same severity, so bewildering to us Norteamericanos, obsessed with smiley faces, eternal progress, and the exceptionalism that makes us hated in the rest of the too ordinary world; and that is the bull fight, which I haven’t yet seen.
But I’ve seen the bulls.
The farm that grows these big solid animals with their curved and pointed horns has been sending their prize bulls to the bull rings of Spain for two hundred years; they can claim two sperm bulls, spared in the ring because of their great power and courage, to produce more of the same, with the cows that are believed to teach their bull calves what fighting is all about.
And what it is all about is what we have so much trouble accepting: the nobility of the great animal which through the matador’s skill presents itself for death—much as the pueblo people’s deer and elk offered themselves for the killing.
The bulls are not victims. Their suffering, under the picadors’ points and the matador’s sword, is irrelevant, which might also be said of the woman’s suffering in childbirth. Both ordeals are opportunities to show power, its roots deep in the tribal memories of the tribe—the bull ancestor we saw on frescoes in Greece, the mythic minator, dining off maidens and youths shipped out from Athens; the primitive (so-called) prehistoric Cycladian goddess, faceless, all belly, vulva and breasts.
This shocks us, as we are shocked by Flamenco and the bullring. At least since the enlightenment, we of the New World have believed in our perfectibility, if not in our perfection, in our concurrent right to protection and ease. The essential tragedy of life is not for us; we will circumvent it, somehow, as when I was a small child I believed death would have been “cured” by the time I was old.
Ernest Hemingway may be the only twentieth century writer to understand the tragedy that is at the root of every important experience. In The Sun Also Rises, a dreary novel about drunken Americans in Spain, the only passages worth reading—and, I suspect, worth writing—are those in which Jake Barnes, the castrated narrator, describes Pedro Romero killing his bull in the ring at Pamplona:
He profiled directly in front of the bull, drew the sword out of the folds of the muleta and sighted along the blade. The bull watched him. Romero spoke to the bull and tapped one of his feet. The bull charged and Romero waited for the charge, the muleta held low, sighting along the blade, his feet firm. Then without taking a step forward, he became one with the bull, the sword was in high between the shoulders, the bull had followed the low-flung flannel, that disappeared as Romero lurched clear to the left, and it was over.
A lot of the people I know, vegetarians, spiritual seekers, people who never curse or rage, who are able to control most aspects of their lives because of money, good health, and good luck, won’t tolerate bull fights. As Hemingway said elsewhere, don’t take a woman to a bullfight because she will either faint, throw up or run away.
And not only women. All of us clean livers, so remote from the crushed granite of the bull ring and its spreading blood stains, cry out against cruelty to animals, insist on free-ranging chickens and all the other “natural” foods that are supposed to be raised without causing any harm, as we insist that we cause no harm while perpetrating wars and destroying the atmosphere.
And no blood, please. We’re civilized.