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Thoughts on Bullfighting Thoughts on Bullfighting
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2012-08-09 11:04:12
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Blood sports come in many varieties.  Boxing, hunting, fishing, and, to some degree, all games that are called contact sports, such as boxing, rugby and American football.   Bullfighting is practiced in several Latin American countries such as Mexico and Columbia, as well as Spain, southern France, and Portugal.  In Portugal it is not a blood sport, since the object is to put wreaths around the horns of the bull, not kill him.  But all blood sports are in ill-repute these days.  It is a sign of the times, where educated people avow gentler endeavors, such as making money.  The most important recent development was the banning of bullfighting in Cataluña, which is almost half of Spain itself. 

Why this trend has been taking place over several decades without any serious public discussion is the question that surprises me.  My belief is that, having found shelter in the school of political correctness, opponents of these sports allow no public discussion of the question to raise its head.

Why are there any blood sports at all?  That is the only question that could get us anywhere.  Inferentially, what will be established will entail that blood sports that are strictly between animals are not able to be justified, but those that have a human actor may be part of a ritual that is quite understandable, perhaps even noble.  

A digression. There are regions such as Gibraltar, where bullfights are shown on TV as a sport.  All the camera does is to focus on the bull, which is very boring and inappropriate, to say the least.  First of all, the bull does not kill himself, or injure anyone while he is on TV, and, what is more, does not know that he is performing. Ergo, such TV transmissions are boring.  More centrally, bullfighting has nothing to do with mere sport, and so the question should be withdrawn.

I assert that bullfighting, which goes back thousands of years in several readings, is not a sport.  What is it then?  It is a ritual, including dance and painting, that arose approximately 40,000 years ago, the dawn of the human enterprise, as can be seen on the walls of certain caves in Lascaux, a ritual that celebrates the sovereign nature of the beast, and the ability of his rival, human kind, who manage to overcome the strength of the beast though it be many times the strength of ten.

The ritual reenacts the rival between man and beast, and publicly displays man’s superiority, not in terms of brute animal strength, but in terms of guile, and intelligence, and daring, and resolution.  Thus it is the human who is superior to the bull, and by extension, to nature itself.  Qualities such as coordination with others, and foresight, and perseverance are other secrets of man’s success in all fields of animal husbandry, governing most of the animal kingdoms. 

The reason why bullfighting is believed to be a mere sport is that the requirements of the ritual entail that everything be stripped down to the bare minimum, and that the toreador and matador face the huge bull face to face when the moment of truth has come.  But the large numbers of toreadors who have perished on the sands proves that this is more serious than mere sport.  All that has to happen to seal the fate of the matador is for the bull, whose eyesight is not very good, to espy the difference between the body of his adversary and the cape that he, the bull is challenged to run through. 

So, in essence, the bullfight is a ritual drama, primitive as man himself, involves rituals of several kinds, and is a drama of the chanciness of human life and the glory of his ability to overcome all natural obstacles, no matter how great or immediate.  The goal of the ritual is a certain glory for the matador, but also solidarity for every participant and spectator, as Ortega y Gasset remarks. 

It is not true that the bull is mistreated.  For the kill can not be made in any other manner than the one that exists.  The picadors that ride the horses and dig into the shoulders of bull, are preparing those muscles for the eventual kill.  The roysterers who run up to the bull and stick little spears in those same shoulders also must be nimble or they are done for, and these dancers are tasked with crowding the beast, and confuse him when some mistake occurs in the ritual, making him run around much more than he would like, and in the process tiring him out.

Along the way, the toreador tempts him to give battle, and makes of the dance something elegant, but also taunting and eventually decisive, while at the same time engaging those in the arena who can comprehend how difficult certain veronicas are to do.

 All this is preparation for the final act, which requires that the bull’s shoulders be low.  The reason for this is that the kill can only be delivered in one manner.  The blade must hit a certain spot, in between the shoulders and in the form of an inverted triangle, and pierce all the way through to the heart, which will dispatch the adversary quickly, sometimes instantaneously.   The complete vanquishing of such a powerful beast would seem an impossible mission were it not accomplished so often in the arena.

Courage and resolution are primarily what is demonstrated.  Nimbleness and speed also from the minor players, as we see on wall paintings from southern France and from Greece in its earliest age.  If it were merely a sport, the danger would not be real.  But the death dealing is real, and therefore not a sport. 

Racecar driving carries the same set of possibilities, and not long ago caused the death of the majority of the top racers.  So, the tension is quite similar, and above the level of mere sport.

The negative side of this kind of courage is a nervous expectation of death, and, worse, such injuries that would make of death a joyride.  Anyone who has seen, as I have, a toreador picked up on the end of the horn of the bull and thrown, usually for a considerable distance, will know the feeling of total disaster and imminent death.  Even if the toreador does not die, the spectator will never forget the experience, which puts him or her in touch with the fatal nature of human life.  This experience brings the spectator back to the natural state of man, which is overwhelmingly dangerous and filled with mysterious and hostile forces. 

This truth strips civilization away, and demonstrates man’s essential vulnerability, something that most of us never experience, and unable to acknowledge.  This shows that civilizations of all types are a shield from such awareness.  The ritual strips away civilization, and leaves the drama to develop as it will.  Death seems unnatural to us, which makes us unable to see into the heart of the human condition, which is a tragic form of knowledge.



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Emanuel Paparella2012-08-10 02:49:18
Larry, this is an insightful analysis which goes a long way in overcoming the hypocritical sentimentalism of those who would show compassion toward a tormented animal but have no qualms of conscience in going to Burger King and eat a cow which has been hit over the head and slaughtered. Which brings me to Eros and Civilization which promised us that we were entering an age when we would do away with war and replace it with sports. Considering the jingoism currently going on at the Olympics do you think there was a point there? I mean the substitution of one form of violence for another to express the dangers of the evolutionary process?

Another consideration. Today I happen to be in the Keys for a brief vacation with my family. We were taken to a reef where we observed a shark swimming among various types of fish. I observed little violence there but there was a comment by the guide which gave me some pause: approximately hald a dozen people world wide are violently killed by sharks every year, but man kills around 40 million sharks every year thus endangering an ecosystem, of which he is part, I say it gave me pause because, aside from the obvious question Who is the more violent of the two species, there is, it seems to me, a more basic philosophical question: who is the most intelligent, the creature who lives in harmony with nature or the one who slaughters unmercifully thus putting his own survival at risk? Indeed, Kierkegaard had in target in identifying the ability to choose one's ultimate destiny as the existential dread of man. The shark does not have that dread, to be sure but how fair is it that he ought to suffer extermination at the hands of a creature who does not seem to know where is best interests lie when it comes to existential survival. I wonder if the whole dialogue about bull fighting ought no be put in the larger contex of ecology and the survial of the earth as we know it, something De Chardin was very much concerned with. In any case, let's keep the dialogue going.

Emanuel Paparella2012-08-10 03:46:01
P.S. A brief follow-up to the previous comment: it also occurs to me that when Nero decided to make drama a blood sport, so to speak, and had people really killed on stage, he undoubtedly was not thinking of Aristotle's catharsis via drama, neither was he thinking of Eros and Civiilization and its Freudian discontents...but he was merely revealing the savagery of which human nature is capable. I suppose we'd have to go back to the concept of original sin and/or Plato's cave to resolve that kind of conundrum. In any case, your piece remains quite insightful and worthy of being further pursued..

L. Nannery2012-08-13 18:26:03
Thanks to Emmanuel Paparella for his comments. I am sure you are correct in much of wha tyou say, but I was trying to show one side of the primitive nature of bullfighting, which is to suggest the possibility of tragedy in certain societies and not in others. Christianity kills tragedy, because the promise of eternal happiness is not commensurable with chances for total and ultimate failure. Also, bravery and coldbloodedness are virtues, but not Christian virtues.

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