Bullfighting: A Troubled History

Felipe Fernández-Armesto laments an 'ignorant' attack on a threatened but precious fighting tradition

September 16, 2010

Love animals, love bullfighting. There are three compelling reasons for animal-lovers to uphold the tradition of the corrida.

First, of all the uneven encounters of humans with other animals, the bullfight alone grants the victim the chance to fight back. With good fortune, he can escape his fate. This option is unavailable in McDonald's. A brave toro can kill a man: no other form of slaughter licenses such privilege. Even big game hunting, by comparison, grossly distorts the odds and cheats the victim: the charging rhino is not invited to close in on his tormentor. So the bullring is a unique and precious arena of animal rights: the right to resist, the chance to get even, the hope of survival when humans reach for their blades and syringes.

Second, you have to look at bullfighting from the bull's point of view. A fighting bull does what it says on the tin - or rather, on the bristling hide and in the ferocious eye. He is born for battle. He is not a variant of domestic breeds. His genes bypass tameness. Fighting fulfils his nature. Without bullfighting to conserve it, his breed will succumb rapidly to extinction, while the ecosystem of his pastures withers. Meanwhile, without a ring in which to die fiercely, the bull will be doomed to death by humiliation in the sanitised precincts of a ghastly high-tech abattoir, regulated with clipboard indifference by some urbanite's idea of "health and safety". No one will witness his valour or remember his prowess. I weep to see him die in the ring. I weep more at the thought of his death with his mettle untested.

Finally, bullfighting defies the most degrading human offence against animals, which is patronising sentimentalisation. An anti-bullfighting mother of my acquaintance asked her little boy why he didn't mind going to the corrida with Daddy. "Because", the child replied, "I like hamburgers." He had a point. Jains and vegans can condemn bullfighting, along with all the other ways humans have of slaughtering fellow-creatures. But most of bullfighting's critics eat meat extruded from the cruelty and condescension of battery farms. Until we take non-human creatures into our moral universe, raising bulls in free pasture for the ring and facing them in combat is a better, more loving way of turning life into meat. It would be more rational, from an animal-lover's point of view, to ban other forms of slaughter.

I cannot watch suffering, bloodshed and death. That is not because I am morally superior to aficionados, but because I am squeamish, restless and generally indifferent to spectacle. I do not cry "Cruelty!" at friends who go to the arena for love of the tragedy, balletics, drama, exoticism, emotional intensity and traditional mummery. There may be sadists who abuse the occasion: so there are at boxing matches and motor races. Anyone who has watched corridas dispassionately knows that the art and the crowd are not intentionally cruel: on the contrary, if cruel acts stack the odds too heavily in the matador's favour - if, for instance, the bull's muscles have been savagely weakened or the creature has lost too much blood before the golpe - the crowd protests. I see no merit in the argument that death is exacerbated by being the subject of spectacle. Death is death. If I could overcome my own squeamishness, I would want to hallow it with a release of my own emotions, and to be humbled and bettered by the sight of it.

Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier's thoughts on the subject are valueless - the maunderings of mawkishness, the rhetoric of ignorance, polemics masquerading as a history. You might as well try to learn about God from Richard Dawkins or Jews from Mein Kampf. Her book is not even a good polemic - so poorly written, translated and edited that many sentences are literal nonsense and the whole work is incoherent. When she digresses from matters relevant to her discipline as an art historian, her observations are superficial. Her judgements and data compel distrust. Not even the wonderful illustrations - the best I have seen in a general book on bullfighting - redeem her drivel.

The pity of it is that, in a world where people will not take the trouble to examine their own prejudices, ill-informed and unthinking condemnations such as hers are undermining the bullfighting tradition. The corrida is probably doomed. When it vanishes, and the last toro de lidia dies in ignominy, something precious - ecologically precious, emotionally precious, artistically precious, morally precious - will vanish with it.

Bullfighting: A Troubled History

By Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier

Reaktion, 208pp, £19.95

ISBN 9781861895189

Published July 2010

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