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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.
Bullfighting aficionados would say it’s “traditional,” not “antiquated.” One fan told me a few days after the fight that you have to grow up with bullfighting to appreciate it. He explained that the event was layered with small traditional flourishes. For instance, he said, each trumpet melody has its own meaning, and the judge of the bullfight, known as the presidente, decides which will be played. This lined up with the relaxed-yet-attentive vibe at Plaza México. Mostly quiet after the start, the spectators erupted in unison during the first great ole, seemingly out of nowhere. Then came whistles, cheers, and more oles at various points in the proceedings.
IS VIOLENT DEATH, LIKE Hemingway says, really “one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental?” Violence, like anything else, happens in context. A bullfight is a lavish and carefully orchestrated ritual. It hardly feels simple or fundamental, even in the primal way that hunting does. Before being liberated by death, the bull is made to suffer through pre-ordained phases of injury at the hands of the picadores and banderilleros. He is humiliated and taunted by the matador, who postures with mad ego, making light of death, and light of his alleged opponent. It is true that on rare occasions, the bull is granted a pardon for displaying exceptional courage, but it seems to me that for the unknowing animal, what we call courage has a lot more to do with survival instincts.
When the third bull of the day entered the ring, thick and wild-eyed, it occurred to me that until that very moment, he had lived a charmed life. He had been bred for strength, raised for four years on a large ranch, pampered and prepared. He would die a miserable public death, and afterward he would be butchered for meat. Is this worse than the life of typical beef cow, who after six months alongside his mother is sent to a crowded feedlot to be fattened up with grain and injected with antibiotics for another six months before meeting his own inglorious death by captive bolt pistol? Obviously this is a false choice. More ethical options exist. But the hypothetical is worth considering. Which life and death would you prefer?
At Plaza Mexico, death was the main concern, and yet it did not appear to be a concern at all. It was merely inevitable. Outside the arena, streetside vendors sold stuffed bulls to children without irony. Despite a growing anti-bullfighting sentiment in Mexico, there were no political protesters to be seen. Inside, after a particularly magnificent performance against his second bull, El Juli was awarded its ears as trophies. Silveti was awarded an ear, too. The trumpets played on, and the groundskeepers raked the dirt in the ring where the bulls had been dragged away.
Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His work has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, The Daily Beast, and The Best American Sports Writing. He founded the baseball blog Pitchers & Poets and is a founder of The Classical.