The bull seemed suddenly aware that not only was he doomed, but that he had been duped, publicly humiliated.
At first, a bullfight feels about as serious as a war reenactment. The event begins with a trumpet call and a formal procession of people and animals in silly and highly elaborate costumes. The erect postures and stern expressions of the bullfighters feel so antiquated and so out of place and time that they only really call attention to the urgent modernness of the present. Then the parade clears out, and the first bull enters the ring.
It all happens fairly quickly. The bull runs a few proud laps before he is drawn to the center of the ring by a cape-wielding matador. Then he is lanced by a picador on a staid horse, stuck with colorful barbed sticks by banderilleros, and finally stabbed by the matador with a silver sword. He stumbles for a few moments in a humiliated rage. Then his body is dragged out of the arena by a pair of mules, often in a full circle for optimal viewing, leaving a dark trail across the golden dirt.
When the bull has been removed, groundskeepers enter the ring to re-chalk the two concentric white circles inside which the matador had held the animal while the picadors were getting their horses into place. They re-rake the dirt over where the body was dragged, and they pour new dirt where the bull fell. The groundskeepers, like everybody else who steps into the ring, wear dramatic, ornamented outfits. Even the most basic tasks at a bullfight drip with formality and pageantry.
ON A RECENT SUNDAY, I attended my first bullfight, a mano-a-mano (head-to-head matchup) between Diego Silveti and the superstar Julián “El Juli” López at the world’s largest bullring, the Plaza México, in Mexico City. Many of the 40,000 people in the crowd were well-dressed, upper-class types who looked like they had just been imported from Madrid to give the atmosphere a Spanish accent; many of the others were working-class Mexican men sipping sangria from canvas canteens.
We sat high up in the cheap seats. Specifically, our section was general sol, general admission on the sunny side of the arena. (Tickets in the shade are more expensive.) Sitting up high, I was struck first by the perfect roundness of the building. There was something claustrophobic about the circularity, as if we were all enclosed in our own bullring. But there was also an equality about it; no home plate or 50-yard line by which to judge the quality of our seats. Even from high up, I could look down over the steep bleachers with a perfect view of the action below—action that seemed to exist in a different century from mine. The tops of nearby skyscrapers peaked out over the arena walls, but inside, it was all capes, swords, and pasodoble music.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about bullfighting in the context of war, which probably doesn’t surprise you. But he was less interested in the vestiges of war than in death. Hemingway saw bullfighting the way many traditionalists do: as a ceremonial display of courage and nobility by man and beast; not a sport but an artform; a cultural event; a tragedy on the order of Shakespeare. In “Death in the Afternoon,” he wrote:
The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bullring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death.
I was prepared for violent death when I arrived at Plaza México, and violent death was what I got. The first bull was small and puppy-like; he hardly seemed vicious. After a series of hypnotic dodges and maneuvers that were so elegant as to not even look dangerous, El Juli failed on the initial thrust of his sword. The steel blade clanked down to the dirt. Only on the third thrust was the sword (called an estocada) successfully inserted. The matador rolled his eyes, thinking finally, and went to retrieve his hat from where he had ceremoniously placed it in the center of the ring. The bull seemed suddenly aware that not only was he doomed, but that he had been duped, publicly humiliated. He bucked briefly and desperately, then he fell for a final time. The trumpets played a funereal dirge. I have never been to war, but bullfighting as an approximation for it only makes sense to me in that both activities are draped in flags and often based on antiquated ideas.