A little world of death
Christopher North says the decline of bull fighting is greatly exaggerated
Bullfighting is the ultimate people’s festival. Nowhere else is the audience so involved with the performance. Where sports reports begin with the score, taurine reports (which appear in the culture sections of Spanish newspapers, never the sports pages) open with a summary of the crowd’s reactions.
For example: “Six bulls of Jandilla, well-presented and lively, except for the feeble third. Diego Urdiales, silence, one ear; Miguel Angel Perera, applause, lap of the ring; Paco Ureña, whistles, one ear with a strong petition for a second.” ( The bull’s ears are awarded for an exceptional performance.)
Every spectator is an aesthete, a critic constantly signalling his approval or his disapprobation through a number of well-understood indicators. is mass participation makes for a concentration of emotion that nothing else can produce. At the end of a great bull fight, you are left feeling drained: purer, cleaner, renewed. Only the most wrenching stage tragedies can come close to such catharsis.
Eventually, both the burger and the bullfight will go
Being a popular spectacle, bullfighting needs people — lots of them. And, by and large, it gets them. British reporters have been claiming that the fiesta is in decline for as long as anyone can remember. We keep reading that public interest is flagging, that Spanish national TV no longer broadcasts bullfights, that parts of Spain have banned them outright.
In fact, ticket sales rose steadily until the financial crisis hit Spain in 2009, and have been creeping up again since. the state broadcaster no longer carries bullfights because it can’t afford to — the rights are snapped up by wealthy subscription channels.
The ban in Barcelona had nothing to do with bulls and everything to do with identity politics. For Spanish Catalans, banning bullfights is a way of flaunting their distance from Madrid — like ostentatiously shunning late lunches and guitars. For French Catalans, conversely, embracing bullfights is a way of flaunting their distance from Paris.
Indeed, bulls have never been more fashionable north of the Pyrenees. You now see posters on the Paris metro advertising the bullfights in Arles, Nîmes, Dax and Mont-de-Marsan. As recently as the 1990s, those rings were disproportionately filled with old geezers in berets; now they attract the sorts of youngsters who, in this country, are found at music festivals.
The only parts of the world where bullfighting can fairly be said to be struggling are Mexico, whose main plaza, the largest in the world with a 48,000 capacity, is rarely even half-full, and Venezuela, where socialism has demolished civil society.
Why, in an age of screen addiction and superficiality, do people keep coming in such numbers to an almost Mithraic rite? That is the question that this column will answer in the months ahead. We shall look at the contrasting artistic styles of different matadors; at the bloodlines of the bulls, the most exquisitely bred animals on earth; at the politics of what aficionados call el mundillo, the little world. We shall examine the giving and receiving of death — which is ultimately what it’s all about.
I shall assume that you, the reader, are intelligent, but without prior knowledge. I will use Spanish words as sparingly as possible — though it is impossible to write about toreo (“bullfighting” is a terrible translation) without at least some technical terms.
The one thing I won’t do, except this once, is address the ethics. So, if only for the sake of correct form, let me deal with that issue now.
Bullfighting will be banned one day. The world is heading towards veganism — possibly supplemented in the future by meat cultivated in nutrients. Once we stop eating animals, an awful lot of things that we currently do to them will seem unspeakable. Horse racing will be outlawed, I suspect, as will zoos.
If you are already there in your personal habits, nothing will reconcile you to toreo. But if you eat meat, ask yourself this. Would you rather live as a beef animal, or as a toro bravo? The question should answer itself. The fighting bull is not separated from his mother at birth, or castrated.
He does not have his horns cauterised or his tail docked. He is not artificially fattened up. On the contrary, he lives for five years in something close to a state of nature — the essence of a bullfight is that he has never before encountered an unmounted man, and learns with each charge. Within 15 minutes (by law it cannot last longer) he is dead. His death is violent, yes, but also brave: to the last, he is still trying to charge, still trying to drive his challengers from the ring.
How did Macaulay put it? “The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” It is always easy to oppose things that other people do, to rail against barbaric foreigners while chomping burgers. Eventually, both the burger and the bullfight will go. But, until that day, toreo is the most intense spectator experience out there — as I hope to convince you.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe