Taking a brief break from mayoral politics in Schenectady as well as Republican presidential politics in the nation at large, I attended a bullfight in Mexico City the other day, as I had promised myself I would. I have toiled these many months without respite, and I convinced myself I had earned it.
My wife needed no convincing. She is as much a partisan of Mexico City as I am, and as much an aficionada of the bulls, so when I proposed it, it was as good as done.
The weather was not favorable. In Mexico City at this time of year, afternoon temperatures are usually in the 70s and the sky is clear enough that it’s worth the extra money to get seats on the shady side of the arena, which we always do.
Alas, on this Sunday afternoon the temperature was in the 40s, a light drizzle was falling, and the wind was blowing. We were provisioned with umbrellas and light fleece jackets, plus two undersized plastic sheets that we bought from a vendor for 10 pesos each, and I don’t remember when I’ve been so cold.
We huddled as best we could with 20,000 other shivering devotees of the archaic ritual of the bulls. (I don’t know how it does survive, what with the advancing sensibility toward the welfare of animals, but there we all were, witnesses to it.) The high point, I guess, was the performance of a slender 22-year-old matador who in the final act of his drama, after the placing of the banderillas, was working confidently with a not very aggressive 1,200-pound bull when the bull suddenly turned from the red muleta, hit him square and threw him high into the air.
If the man lands on the ground in such a situation he is usually all right. But if he lands on the bull’s head, he is often dead, one horn or the other going clean through his body.
The man in this case landed on the bull’s head, and I had the horrible collapsing feeling of seeing someone killed before my very eyes, which I have had only a few times in my life. And it got worse when the matador fell off the bull’s head, rolled onto the ground and the bull went furiously to work on him, the ring assistants flapping their capes to get him off.
I won’t keep you in suspense but will tell you right away that not only did the matador survive, he jumped up full of beans, as indignant as he could be at being so rudely treated, snatched up his sword and muleta and proceeded to give a beautiful series of passes as the crowd chanted “Tor-e-ro! Tor-e-ro!” meaning bullfighter, bullfighter, which is the highest praise the crowd can give, the sense being, this guy is the real thing.
And when he finished off with a clean kill, the crowd went into another chant of “Or-e-ja! Or-e-ja!” meaning ear, ear, which my normally demure wife lustily joined, the sense in this case being a demand that the matador be awarded an ear, which he was.
A clean kill is essential in these matters. The man must approach the bull head on, risking a fatal goring, and plunge the sword down between the bull’s shoulder blades, all the way to the hilt, so it cuts the aorta.
On this afternoon, in addition to the standard bullfighting on foot, we were treated to the fighting of two bulls from horseback by a practitioner from Portugal, where this form of the art is popular, and in both cases his otherwise beautiful performances were marred by his inability to kill cleanly.
The crowd does not like it when the bullfighter can’t get the sword in properly, the bull staggers
drunkenly around the ring and finally has to be finished off with an executioner’s stab to the base of the skull, severing the spinal cord. There is no art in such a thing, and no catharsis.
Catharsis in the Greek sense, having in mind that the modern fighting of bulls is a survival of ancient Mediterranean rituals in which a bull, the most awe-inspiring of animals, was killed as a stand-in for a god.
The early Roman depictions of the god Mithras stabbing a bull to death are already late entries in this tradition, the oldest ones predating the glory days of Roman civilization, when an actual human being was ritually killed each year, taking the place of a god and thereby giving new life to the community. (Maybe you thought the killing of a man-god was a novelty with Christianity, but it was not. Students of The Golden Bough know all about this.) With the advance of human sensibilities a bull was eventually substituted for the man, just as the man had been substituted for the god, that’s all.
It’s a popular misconception that bullfighting is a sport, and on those grounds it’s condemned as unfair, since the bull doesn’t have a chance.
But it’s not a sport, it’s a ritual, a highly refined and elaborated ritual, in which a man gracefully and arrogantly slaughters a bull while exposing himself to the danger of death himself.
If you can make a few mental adjustments, it’s a thrilling thing to see, and my only hope is that the SPCA doesn’t find out that this is what I do on my vacations.