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Bull Sessions: Journalism’s Bloodsport Love Affair

By (February 1, 2012) 3 Comments

Contemporary literary journalists don’t normally exhibit a lot of bloodlust. On the contrary, their work often reveals a clear distaste for violence. When Elif Batuman described Turkish soccer hooligans in the New Yorker last year, for example, or Cullen Murphy reported last month on torture through the ages in The Atlantic, they did so with an unmistakable tone of quiet condemnation at their subjects’ brutality. Even when our magazine writers admit to liking certain highly regulated kinds of violence, as Ben McGrath did in his January 2010 story about the concussion crisis in the N.F.L., also in the New Yorker, it’s with a certain troubled embarrassment. “I was smitten,” McGrath writes of a violent player he saw growing up—but then goes on to describe his “guilty fear,” now, that he’s going to “watch a man die on the turf.”

It’s not just violence, either; you name it and these guys have thoughtfully disapproved of it. Subcontractors in Afghanistan, partisanship in Washington, drug cartels in Mexico… even Alcoholic’s Anonymous had its “cultishness” explored in Harper’s in that same, searching, pacifist tone, so you would think animal cruelty would be a no-brainer. But show literary journalists one particular kind of animal cruelty—viz. a couple of tight-panted Spaniards slaughtering a bull in broad daylight—and that carefully modulated tone of moral concern goes out the window. Almost without exception they present bullfighting in the same way as innovative new culinary movements or the latest indie rock sensation, as a “fascinating” topic and not as a troubling one, and grow so fascinated by its elaborate costumes and mesmerizing rituals it’s as if the slaughtering part—the part you might reasonably expect them to get upset about—hardly matters.

Consider what was arguably the most visible glut of bull writing in recent years: a series of major profiles all published within a year of each other in the mid-to-late 1990s. The first, Tony Hendra’s “Man and Bull” in the November 1996 issue of Harper’s, painted an adoring portrait of Francisco Rivera Ordonez (“Fran,” Hendra calls him), the latest in a long family line of bullfighters stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century. The second, Susan Orlean’s “La Matador Revisa Su Maquillaje (The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup),” which appeared only a month later in Outside magazine, provided a more measured but no less adoring glimpse into the life of Cristina Sanchez, the first woman to become a matador by Spain’s snobbishly high standards. And a third, “Blonde and Sand,” which was published in GQ a few months after that, completed the trio with more of the same, yet again by Tony Hendra and yet again about Cristina Sanchez. (Hendra’s two pieces were also reprinted, respectively, in the 1997 and 1998 editions of The Best American Sports Writing.)

These adoring portraits are a far cry from the hard-hitting exposés—or even light wrist-slappings—that you might expect from the same magazines who air suspicions about A.A. But for some reason bullfighting has rarely troubled the otherwise well-tuned consciences of our literary journalists—to say nothing of their compunctions about recycling subject matter—and even today the practice remains the catnip of the magazine world: sprouting with confounding frequency among the loveliest of other subjects, and leaving those who get a whiff of it purring with delight. The truly fascinating question, when it comes to these otherwise scrupulous writers, is why.

It’s tempting to pin the blame here on Hemingway, who was, after all, the one who established bullfighting as worthy of literary treatment. (Apart from Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises and several other novels, he also wrote his own three-part magazine piece for Life in 1960, entitled “The Dangerous Summer,” which formed the basis for the later book of the same name.) With such lofty precedent it’s no wonder some still clamor for their own space in bullfighting’s literary penumbra, but in fact that can only account for part of the genre’s consistent popularity; Hemingway is never central to his successors’ writing, and besides, the first time bullfighting appeared in an American literary magazine was fifty years before he was even born.

That essay, published in Harper’s in 1851 and titled simply “A Spanish Bull Fight,” consists of an anonymous and rather quaint Victorian author gushing in the royal we about a thrilling afternoon at the ring. “This was a spectacle we had never yet beheld,” the author explains, in a typical passage, “and our curiosity was therefore aroused to the highest-possible pitch of excitement… Our hearts almost leaped from our mouths, so deeply were we excited in contemplation of the sanguinary event.” Such labored prose continues in bull writing’s next installment, also in Harper’s, in 1898, and in their own plodding way these two articles between them establish almost all of the genre’s principal features—particularly the authors’ apparent willingness to give into bullfighting’s charm despite its goriness. Indeed, despite both of Harper’s nineteenth-century correspondents starting off with healthy levels of skepticism, they both end up enchanted: the anonymous 1851 author tells us that although “the impression made upon our minds… was so deeply tinctured with horror that we resolved never to attend another… this good resolution, like so many others we have made in our lives, was eventually overcome by temptations.” Meanwhile, 1898’s Lucia Purdy—who at the outset has “absolutely no curiosity to see a bull-fight” and “the usual ideas concerning [the practice’s] barbarity”—ends up inviting a matador back to America, hopeful that the laws against animal cruelty there can be overcome and that the “art” of bullfighting met with “recognition all over the world”.

Still, at least these two had some skepticism to start with, a feature conspicuously lacking in most of their successors. By 1937, when the genre’s next offering appears, any trace of discomfort at bullfighting’s brutality seems to have evaporated. Instead, the article—“Letter From The Bull Ring”, a short piece by a New Yorker writer with the mysterious one-word name Genêt—leaps straight into describing “the handsomest of the recent corridas,” and seems otherwise most concerned that the Spanish Civil War has forced the practice north, to France.

(Genêt was the pseudonym of Janet Flanner, a child of Indiana Quakers and the magazine’s go-to correspondent for all things French. During her long career she profiled such luminaries as Thomas Mann, Edith Wharton, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and dozens more besides—though her most memorable encounter with the literati came on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, when she was caught in the crossfire between a sneering Gore Vidal and a drunk Norman Mailer. She was also friends with Hemingway.)

To Genêt’s credit, her article at least provides some insight into bullfighting’s origins, which today’s writers often omit—probably because it rather undercuts the feeling of ages-old mystique they like to harp on. Orlean, for example, characterizes the practice as full of “ancientness and majesty and excitement,” and Hendra as “an archetype as old as the cult of the dead,” when in fact bullfighting picked up many of its hallmarks fairly recently: it wasn’t until the 1900s, for example, that the fancy capework and hair’s-breadth-from-danger artistry used to attract the bull was first introduced, by an otherwise unremarkable man named Belmonte whose legs were too weak to chase down the beasts himself. These niceties constituted a fairly major departure for the practice, and unlike today’s aficionados those at the time were unimpressed—mostly because it meant the bulls had to be bred smaller and more timid.

What’s more, contrary to the ancient archetypes you might hold dear if you believe everything you read in Orlean and Hendra, the very idea of a man on foot confronting a bull came about only in the eighteenth century, more or less accidentally, when noblemen who confronted bulls on horseback began enlisting unmounted commoners to help guide the animals towards their fate. Back then the show was mostly pageantry, intended for other noblemen and the occasional visiting monarch, and nobody else took much notice—but the assistants’ performances quickly became so legendary that the noblemen, peeved, moved on to greener, more exclusive pastures, leaving behind a new “sport” in which the matador was king.

So says bull writing’s next major chapter, anyway, twelve years after Genêt: a three-part feature by New Yorker staff writer Lillian Ross entitled “El Único Matador.” Ross’s principal subject was the first American to be recognized as a fully-fledged Spanish matador—a man named Sidney Franklin—and I must confess to being quite charmed by her portrait of him. A loudmouth braggart from Park Slope, he talks entirely in clichés and misused French aphorisms, and rubs shoulders with the likes of Rita Hayworth, FDR Jr., and (of course) Ernest Hemingway, so nonchalantly you’d think they were just another bunch of schlubs from Brooklyn (“I weighed Ernest in the balance and found him wanting”). Ross quickly drifts away from Franklin-as-eccentric, though, and instead towards Franklin-as-master-bullfighter, and in so doing begins to drool over “classical style” and “purity of form” in the same unimaginative way writers do today. She also provides a good example of what seems to be a rite of passage for any literary journalist who wishes to cover bullfighting: a highly detailed rendering of the final moments before a kill.

“The idea,” she begins,

Is for the matador to bring the bull’s horns as close to his body as possible without being gored. . . . The series of passes ends with the remate, a whirling of the cape that gives the bull no target to charge. The bull stands baffled as the matador haughtily turns his back on him and walks slowly away. A well-executed [pass] is a graceful and breathtaking sight.

Compare Mr. Hendra’s description of Fran forty-five years later, its style a little more breathless but its content remarkably similar:

If he has miscalculated by an inch or two he will either have to chicken out or let the left-hand horn pierce his gold-encrusted heart. . . . His body arches around as the bull tears past him, the cape flaring across the sand in a brilliant arc, his feet unyielding, his head down, every nerve tuned to this one motion, apparently unaware of the half-ton of death he has cheated of its prize. He keeps absolute purity of movements, and quietly and calmly lets the horns pass him close.

Compare too, for that matter, our anonymous author from 1851, who even in the pre-capework era finds a lot in common with these later passages:

An intense stillness reigns throughout the vast assemblage; the most critical point of the tragedy is at hand, and every glance is riveted upon the person and the movements of the matador. A single fatal thrust may launch him into eternity, yet no expression of fear escapes him; cool and self-possessed, he stands before his victim, studious of every motion, and ready to take advantage of any chance. . . . The bull and matador, as motionless as if carved in marble, present a fearfully artistic effect.

Read them back-to-back like this, and you start to wonder if all three of them were working from the same press kit.

But back to the New Yorker. After Lillian Ross, in 1949, the magazine’s coverage of bullfighting thins out for thirty years, with just one relatively forgettable profile of father Ordonez, Antonio, entitled “Two Ears”—a reference to how each fight is scored, gruesomely, by distributing different combinations of the bull’s body parts to its slayers. In the meantime, though, plenty of other magazines pick up the slack: there’s a Harper’s piece about bullfighting’s Portuguese analogue, bull baiting; a Sports Illustrated exploration of the swimsuit-like variety in the practice’s costumes; and yet another profile of Antonio Ordonez by Kenneth Tynan (who also wrote a popular book called Bull Fever) in the Atlantic.

Tynan was a noted British drama critic, usually remembered as the first person to say “fuck” on the BBC, but no such subversive tendencies are on display in his Atlantic piece, where he phones in the “bullfighting as art” theme. He uses the word “art” no fewer than thirteen times in six pages, includes a suitably pretentious quote from his subject (“You do not dominate the bull. You coincide with him”), and of course produces his spin on that ubiquitous press kit:

The classic way of [bullfighting] is to move the leg further from the bull forward as soon as the charge begins, so that it is placed directly in his path, and then to take him around and beyond it with a single sweep of the muleta. . . . After the last pass . . . [the matador] twirls slowly on his toes, transferring the cloth behind his back to the left hand, floats it across the bull’s dazzled eyes, and, completing his turn with uptilted head, walks softly away into a roar of applause.

After that, if you can believe people were still writing about bullfighting as if it were something new and interesting — the next installment in the canon comes in 1984, with New Yorker‘s “Damp In The Afternoon”, in which the ever-irreverent Calvin Trillin strays from the genre’s usual purple prose and instead serves up a tongue-in-cheek survey of a particularly provincial French variant known as taureaux piscine.

At its heart this iteration of bullfighting is mostly unchanged—men have to avoid getting mauled—but it replaces the pomp of Spain’s silken demigods with a paddling pool, which piscinadors (to coin a term) must attempt to occupy simultaneously with their prey. Trillin also describes in passing a few other variations on the theme, like taureaux pastèque, in which competitors must sit on a bench in the middle of a bullring and finish a slice of watermelon without getting gored, and taureaux football, which is pretty much what it sounds like. (To paraphrase his own disclaimer: I shit you not.)

Ernest Hemingway and Antonio Ordóñez in Madrid

If Trillin’s piece takes a different angle, he is still no less guilty of portraying the practice as ultimately harmless, and just as consistently as the rest of his bull writing kin, who next return in the Hendra-Orlean trifecta of 1996 and 1997, and then again today in the genre’s most recent resurgence. In December 2009 a new full-length biography of Sidney Franklin appeared (Double-Edged Sword: The Many Lives of Hemingway’s Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin, by Bart Paul), and in the first two months of 2010 came another two magazine pieces: Lizzie Widdicombe’s “Cape Crusader,” in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section, and Gabriel Arce Riocabo’s “Letter From Mexico: A Hero Of Our Time,” in the quarterly Hudson Review.

Anyway. Widdicombe gives us a scant five hundred words and doesn’t say much about bullfighting per se—it focuses on Justin Algaba, “the world’s most respected matador tailor”—but Riocabo’s leisurely profile of José Tomás, bullfighting’s latest darling, hews closely to the style of his forebears: he describes Tomás as a skilled artist “who has restored tragic grandeur to the corrida”; he provides some customary highfalutin soundbites from Tomás himself (“To live without bullfighting is not to live at all”); and finally he renders that familiar moment in the ring:

He passes the bull changing hands, then gives him a series of pases de castigo, where the muleta is yanked back with a flick of the wrist towards the man as the bull passes, like a theatre curtain being drawn back. It is a sharp movement that catches the eye of the bull and makes him double back on himself and on the man just as he passes him. . . . As Tomás pivots, the bull approaches him in ever tighter concentric circles. . . . And then, just when the bull must surely think that he has reached his target in the center of the labyrinth, he discovers that the man has stepped—deus ex machina—out of the maze!

For good measure Riocabo even throws in an Ordonez or two, if obliquely, with a passing reference to Fran’s involvement in some recent tabloid scandals. But though Riocabo tries not to dwell on such vulgar intrusions of the real world into bullfighting’s genteel universe, it’s a losing battle, and nothing can quite mitigate the final indignity contained in his epilogue: in April 2009, as Tomás was triumphantly taking his art to Mexico, authorities there cancelled all remaining bullfights for the season to prevent the spread of swine flu.

Beyond Hemingway, the most straightforward reason why bull writing remains so popular appears to be its authors’ desire to provide objective reportage; a portrait, through literary journalism’s colorful lens, of everyday life in Spain. Orlean for example, pointedly pins a love of bullfighting to the “whole [Spanish] nation,” and Hendra goes even further, assuring us that in Spain “bullfighting is enjoying a long boom with no end in sight.”

Yet this is a mischaracterization of Spanish culture, to say the least. As a Guernica interview with former bullfighter Bette Ford made clear, even before recent calls for the practice’s ban across Spain, matadors have been fighting bulls these past few decades far less than they’ve been fighting a generational loss of interest. Today the few young Spaniards who do want to watch bullfights often find themselves unable to: the organizers of the events, facing dropping revenues, have scaled back their operations, and the national television station recently pulled the practice entirely from its schedules.

That this makes literary journalists’ obsession with bullfighting somewhat anachronistic is clear enough, but it also highlights a curious inaccuracy in much contemporary coverage of the topic: today’s bull writing seems to willfully gloss over the Spanish ambivalence towards the practice, even though that ambivalence is at least as old as Orlean and Hendra’s pieces. In Hendra’s defense, he at least acknowledges that an anti-bullfighting movement exists, as does Riocabo today, but such concessions ring hollow when they come in the midst of competing statements about how the detractors face “an uphill battle” (Hendra), or how bullfighting has—despite the recent bans!—“reasserted its cultural centrality” (Riocabo). The implication always seems to be that the only people who actually object are wonkish E.U. bureaucrats and a few extreme animal rights activists, when in fact, by some estimates, almost three-quarters of the Spanish population feel some unease about it.

Mind you, it can be a struggle to present bullfighting as anything other than a quintessential part of Spanish culture when its technical vocabulary sounds so damn exotic. Bull writers delightedly coo and whisper to us with words like corrida (“bullfight”), matador (“bullfighter”), and veronica (“a maneuver using a cape,” so named, Hendra tells us, because it resembles “St Veronica [offering] her shroud to Christ”). Almost every entry in the canon devotes a few paragraphs to describing the taleguilla (“embroidered trousers”), the montera (“bullfighter’s hat”), and all the other trappings of the traje de luces (which is Spanish for “bullfighting outfit” but is invariably translated more literally as “suit of lights”).

Maybe that linguistic ornamentation helps explain bull writers’ endless fascination with the topic, too; it certainly helps explain the recurring trope of artistry. Just as painters use chiaroscuro instead of “shading” and ballet dancers plié instead of “bending their knees,” a matador who performs a perfect veronica is much more easily seen as master of a craft than as a bloodthirsty butcher. That’s a picador with a banderilla out there, not an assistant stabber with a barbed harpoon. No wonder the slaughtering gets so easily overlooked—it’s like having Antonio Banderas whisper sweet nothings about the credit crunch. (Bull writers also take great pains to remind their readers that “bullfighting”—emphasis on “fighting”—is an entirely foreign interpretation of the untranslatable Spanish “art” of torear, which means something like “to bull”.)

I still wonder, though, why the same magazines that regularly pull out the moral compass when navigating a profile of an ethically dubious political figure, say, are so easily taken in by this charlatan’s sleight of hand—why a few well placed italics can so quickly transform bullfighting from socially sanctioned, gory animal violence into an elegant facet of Spanish high culture.

Admittedly the anonymous Harper’s piece from 1851 doesn’t mince words about the mincing of the bulls. “The torture thus produced drives the wretched animal to the extreme of madness,” it explains; “the polished steel of the matador flies in the air, and descends with tremendous force into the neck of the doomed animal . . . from [whose mouth] a torrent of blood gushes forth in a crimson stream.” But in contemporary profiles such graphic passages are conspicuously absent; the closest we get is something like Orlean’s brief moment pondering why the audience at a bullfight aren’t “shaken by the gore and the idea of watching a ballet that always, absolutely, unfailingly ends with a gradual and deliberate death.” Compared to the 1851 piece, though, “ballet” doesn’t do much to suggest suffering, and in any case is also surrounded, like Hendra and Riocabo’s animal rights disclaimers, by pages belying it: Orlean elsewhere describes bullfighting as “wonderful,” “thrilling,” “precious,” “refined,” and “flashy.”

The bull writers themselves, for what it’s worth, most frequently explain their fascination by implying that the practice goes beyond “mere sport.” The artistry stuff doubtless plays a part, here, but the more common claim is that spectators often reach a heightened, almost spiritual state while watching a bullfight. Tynan provides an excellent example:

It’s as if bull and man were both animated by the same profound source of energy—animal impulse compressed and canalized into deliberate beauty. . . . At this level bullfighting temporarily heals the rift, dissolves the tension, between reason and instinct, intellect and passion. The animal, by the end, is part of us. . . . Beneath an apparent contradiction—the bull’s power versus the man’s intelligence—we perceive a deeper harmony.

Hendra, twenty years later, is more succinct but no less grandiose:

All societies find ways to ritualize their fear of death—this is the method that has evolved on the Iberian peninsula. The matador faces death on our behalf; while he does, we experience the heightened feeling of mortality and immortality.

And Riocabo, another dozen years after that, falls somewhere in the middle:

Bullfighting takes the human instinct to violence and directs it through channels that give it meaning. . . . The bullfight treats violence openly, and with this openness comes accountability and the opportunity for communal absolution. . . . It is not a sport or athletic demonstration. The matador exists to prove one thing: that fear itself can be mastered.

Orlean is also saying something similar, I think, when she calls bullfighting “primal,” and even the boisterous Franklin, in Ross’s profile, takes a solemn moment to acknowledge the “basic truths” revealed by killing a bull. Each time, the suggestion seems to be that, beyond the gore and cruelty, bullfighting has value because it allows us to assert the power of civilization, however fleetingly, over our basest instincts, over violence, and even over death itself.

Of course, it never seems to register as even mildly ironic to these writers that their “heightened,” “beautiful,” “intellectual,” and “meaningful” rituals involve, in the end, the torturously slow bloodletting of a confused animal—I hesitate to say “defenseless” given the number of bullfighters who die or, perhaps worse, have their viscera ripped out and scrotums torn open—or that even the most skilful of bullfighters often botch the death blow, leaving the bull writhing in pain while the “artist” frantically stabs at its neck, again and again, until finally it lies dead and bloody. A heightened state of being, indeed.

No, I think as an apologia all this transcendental stuff is unconvincing. Would you let someone get away with making the same argument about gladiators these days? About boxing? Or, for that matter, about the concussion crisis in the NFL? Rituals like bullfighting may be “civilized” inasmuch as rituals are, by definition, a feature of civilization; but it’s all still violence, at the end of the day, no matter how beautifully carried out, and so doesn’t mitigate our basest instincts, I don’t think, so much as it indulges them.

Trying to explain why people might enjoy these indulgences in general would feel too much like speculation for my tastes, and frankly I even struggle to explain why people might enjoy bullfighting in particular—but I can, at least, offer a cynical theory as to why literary journalism can’t leave it alone: the subject matter is just too good to pass up. In its costumes and rituals and legends bullfighting has a “fully realized subculture” (Orlean, describing what she looks for in stories); in its oft-played up national origins it has “a distinct sense of place” (Trillin, ditto); it has fanatics, and it has colorful adherents, and it has an air, however misplaced, of artistry and authenticity and tradition—it even has Hemingway! Those are the sort of “little minute details” (Ross) that make magazine writers, readers, and editors salivate, and with such journalistic spoils there for the taking it should come as no surprise that concern with the topic’s moral shortcomings gets swept quickly, quietly away.

Then again, perhaps I’m not giving the bull writers enough credit. Perhaps they do find the practice troubling and simply choose not to share it with their readers; perhaps they are the helpless victims of injudicious editing. Or perhaps their constant attempts to elevate bullfighting above its gorier elements stem precisely from a nagging concern as to why anybody might take pleasure in such cruelty. Perhaps—as Orlean does, when she says “I didn’t understand it then, and I doubt I ever will”—they’re simply trying to believe in some redeeming quality to the practice, even if they can’t quite grasp it themselves, in order to protect their own faith that human nature is, despite everything, peaceful and civilized and kind. But whatever the motivation, by continuing to peddle the practice as noble and artistic the bull writers remain collaborators in granting an air of respectability to an entirely avoidable form of animal cruelty.

I can’t completely take the moral high ground here, mind you, because I’ve just written five thousand words of my own about bullfighting and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t found the research fascinating. But for just that reason I don’t think that these decades of bull writing have been totally without merit, if only because they’ve illuminated the need to submit our fascination, sometimes, to a little extra scrutiny. Though there’s much to praise in literary journalism—not least of all its sensitivity to the world’s undiscovered treasures—that sensitivity to one thing can too easily become obliviousness to another, and it often seems, in bullfighting pieces and elsewhere, that the feverish quest for the interesting story can sometimes obscure the important one. When the New Yorker devotes an article to the magic of fountain design, for example, we wonder a little less about water shortages in the developing world; when the Atlantic runs an amused piece about the rise of oversized novelty cocktails, we tend not to think about the medical and social costs they carry; and when someone waxes poetic about the handsomeness of a corrida, we can find ourselves blinkered to the practice’s brutality.

None of which is to say that all literary journalism must be on a moral crusade or even morally spotless, or that there’s anything wrong with the occasional light-hearted profile of people “on the margins.” But I tend to find that the best profiles, even the light-hearted ones, are those that challenge their subjects at the same time as celebrating them. When Jonathan Franzen explores the quirks and kinks of the Chicago postal system, we’re left asking ourselves how an organization whose sole purpose is to serve could have strayed so spectacularly off course; when Robert Love traces the history of yoga in the United States, it’s not without a few backhanded observations about consumer capitalism; even when Susan Orlean follows around a precocious ten-year-old for a few weeks, or Tony Hendra eulogizes George Carlin, the result is always more resonant than their bull writing for not shying from some larger issue. And more often than not it’s those pieces—the ones that do expose some deeper kernel of our nature—that end up being the most fascinating of all.

Andrew Ladd is the book reviews editor for the Ploughshares blog. His work has also appeared in Apalachee Review, Alternet, The Rumpus, PANK‘s “This Modern Writer” series, DRAFT Magazine and the Good Men Project. He lives in Brooklyn, and is putting the finishing touches on his first novel.