A Load of Old Bull

Fans of bullfighting see it as an integral part of Spanish culture. Opponents see it as an excuse for primitive sadists to indulge in atavistic bloodlust.

So, not really much middle ground. All sorts of things claim to be culture these days. Culture used to mean dull paintings of bowls of fruit, or long unreadable novels, designed to bore pre-20th century readers to death before they succumbed to tuberculosis. But then popular culture was invented and even interesting things like pop music and football became subject to tedious academics sucking the life out of them.

I don’t understand bullfighting, let alone its claims to be culture. It was on TV a lot in the past, back in the days before Netflix, when whole families had to watch what they were given. Tele Madrid in particular used to consist almost exclusively of football and bullfighting, until it became an organ for right wing propaganda and sane intelligent people stopped watching it. And of course we all have to pay for our football these days, or watch it in bars while drinking pints with our mates, a terrible development.

I am quite a sensitive soul but Spanish news used to be full of close ups of car crashes, and bomb victims which has a desensitizing effect. So after the initial shock, and a brief period of horrified fascination, I mainly found televised bullfighting as boring as it is incomprehensible. Much like Formula 1 where half the audience is clearly anticipating the crashes, a lot of the appeal seems to be based around waiting for the bullfighter to get gored, preferably through the eye. The anti-bullfighting lobby then go wild with atavistic bloodlust, while the pro bullfighters start wringing their hands and babbling on about tragedies, as if fucking about with an enormous enraged beast with pointed horns is always going to end well. The term bullfight is a misleading English translation anyway. And it certainly isn’t a fair fight. To begin with there is just the one bull which has to take on a whole host of humans armed with sharp lances and swords which they deploy on foot and on horseback. And the humans always have the option to run away, or not participate in the first place. It actually never ends well for the bull, win or lose, although ultimately that could be said of all existence in this weird little universe of ours.

I suspect that as with American football, part of the appeal lies in the powerful current of homo- eroticism running through the whole thing. Those sparkly suits are very tight, and fearfully camp, as are a lot of the heavily ritualized movements. Pedro Almodovar understood this and spent a whole section of his film, Matador, with the camera keenly focused on the bullfighter’s genital area which always seemed to me to be unfeasibly cramped. Like footballers, bullfighters always have glamourous wives and girlfriends. It’s expected of them and of course makes for excellent social camouflage.

But although the suits look great in a 70s glam rock kind of way I’m not a fan. There’s just too much death and blood going on. However, I never get the impression that the audience are primarily slobbering with sadistic glee, although there is plenty of that in some of the variants of tormenting a bull to death which you get in small town fiestas in Spain, such as the demented Toro de la Vega. Here this artless collective killing is apparently a tradition, which simply means people have been doing it for a long time, a justification so feeble I won’t even bother with the obvious argument that slavery, and televised golf also went on for ages. In fact you can still watch golf on the tele. In proper bullfighting, in a bullring, the audience just seems indifferent to the bull’s suffering, and in fact a lot of the argument appears to revolve around the issue of the bull’s consent to being ritually tortured to death. It’s a subject on which the pro bullfighting lobby is particularly prone to making ludicrous claims. Some will tell you that the bull relishes the whole experience. That seems unlikely, but we have no way of knowing. It certainly doesn’t look to be having much fun. It is also often argued that if we didn’t have bullfighting then there would be no fighting-bulls, which is almost the perfect circular argument.

But given the reality of industrial farming I’m not sure anyone who isn’t a vegan or a hunter gatherer, occupies much moral high ground. It is likely that the average fighting-bull does have a significantly better quality of life than the average battery chicken, except for the very last bit when it ends up in the ring. The bull is at least better equipped than the chicken to dish out revenge, as it occasionally does. However, this seems to me to be a better argument against keeping battery chickens than it does for fighting with bulls.

George Orwell commented that during the Spanish Civil War bullfighting practically ceased in the Republican zone because most of the best bullfighters were Fascists. That’s no longer the case but bullfighting still tends to be more popular with people who think of themselves as Spanish patriots. This is why it was recently banned in Catalonia where local nationalist sentiment is at pains to create as much distance as possible from anything associated with Spain. They would probably ban flamenco too if it could be shown to be cruel, which it actually is if experienced at loud volume with a hangover.

To some extent then the pro and anti-bullfighting arguments centre around the decades old conflict between the two Spains, the supposedly progressive, forward looking one, and the other lot. Like fox hunting it has as much to do with cultural conflict and political identity as it does with animal rights. So should it be banned? I don’t know. I’m not much of a fan of banning things but I am aware that this position opens the way for the reinstatement of bear-baiting and child chimney sweeps. A much better option would be just not to go to any bullfights, and wait for them to wither away as all things eventually must. Future generations that survive the oncoming ecological meltdown will then be able to look back and congratulate themselves on how much more advanced civilization has become, unless of course things go the other way, and we go back to having proper gladiators and feeding each other to the lions, if indeed there are still any lions left. For the time being if cruelty is a concern then you should probably just stick to watching football, unless England are playing. That really is cruel.

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