Last updateFri, 09 Sep 2016 3pm

The indefensible exploration of courage, fear, death and the attempt to turn them into art

This weekend the novillera season for up-and-coming toreros starts at Guadalajara’s Plaza de Toros Nuevo Progreso.

“How can you defend bullfighting?” a reader asks.

I don’t think la corrida de toros is defensible, particularly in politically correct terms. This vent, known also as la fiesta brava, is a spectacle in which the death of the bull is a given. It is a fiesta that has to do with primal instincts, impulses which many people wish to deny. Which is understandable, if not pardonable. The world is a wonderfully plural place and, clearly, the corrida is not for everyone, just as, say, mountain climbing, or Dostoevsky, or raicilla are not for everyone.

Obviously, the corrida involves courage — but Albert Schweitzer and Mohandas Gandhi were both incredibly courageous men who would have condemned the fiesta brava in an instant.

Thus, courage comes in different forms — although not in the bountiful variety of its opposite, fear, which appears in many more amazing — and insidious — guises. The visceral exploration, the experiential examination of these two basic instincts, which take place in the bullring, attract the intense attention of some, just as they repel a majority of modern society — as it leans back on the couch to watch body counts mount on television.

It is, in fact, the process of overcoming one’s fears that gives toreros supreme exultation, sometimes to the point of distracting them from good aesthetic judgement — when to cut short a series of passes, when to bring a triumphant encounter to a timely close.

The late Kenneth Tynan wrote: “By profession, I am a drama critic; by conviction, a believer in the abolition of capital punishment; by birth, English.” Some, he said, “find it odd that a lover of mimic deaths of stage tragedy, an enemy of judicial killings, and a native of a country which has immemorially detested those blood sports which involve personal hazard would have … become a friend of the bullfight. But … the bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds — love of grace and valor, of poise and pride; and beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique. No public spectacle … is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight.”

It is the aesthetic aspect of the corrida that differentiates it from other activities that call for displays of risk and courage — pro football, boxing, rodeoing, downhill skiing, car racing — though all of such sports possess moments of grace. Only the corrida openly declares it is not a sport and has as its sole aim to enlist a lethal adversary in the simultaneous creation of art and the deliberate defiance of death. This I believe, lies at the heart of any possible philosophical “justification” of the fiesta brava. Once clearly perceived, it’s a hard combination for some people to resist: art, death, a violent encounter that is at once primal and sophisticated.

This experiential exploration of courage, death and art is surely an adventure. And all adventures, William Bolitho noted in his classic “Twelve Men Against the Gods,” begin with running away from home. Most novilleros (novice, but not amateur bullfighters) classically have begun their careers that way.

Certainly, in the mid-1950s, this seemed true. Such young men were hitchhiking, riding boxcars, taking the cheapest buses through the provinces of Mexico, seeking a fight anywhere they could, under any conditions. Some would even try to sneak into the pastures of bull-breeding ranches at night to try out their passes. Of course, they knew that ranch veladores would shoot anyone attempting to ruin a costly fighting bull that way (A fighting bull, Bos Taurus libericus — a unique breed of strength, extraordinary spirit and an innate impulse for combat — is limpia, never passed before he comes through the toril gate of a bullfight ring, and ideally seldom sees anyone but his feeders or a veterinarian on foot.

Hoping to get in a couple of veronicas (the classic big-cape pass), these youngsters served without pay as assistants of other novilleros lucky enough to land a fight. Few had a traje de luces (suit of lights), but usually the fiestas they performed in didn’t call for one.

These corridas were in rural pueblos where the arena was the local rodeo ring, sometimes merely flimsy planking and tree trunk posts thrown together for a single fight. Such rings had no doctor. Often, you were lucky to have a knowledgeable pharmacist in town.

Such rough conditions seldom bothered these eager beginners. Their exploration of courage and fear commenced the moment they saw the bulls and realized the animals had been fought before. A fighting bull — even third-rate rejects — are expensive, and often people who organized corridas in small villages had only two bulls; they’d run one out to be caped and faced the small flannel muleta, but not killed. (There were no picadors to take the edge off lethally hooking animals.) That meant novilleros in such places were always facing at least one bull possessing possibly more experience than he did. A fighting bull learns fast and, once it senses that the cape is an empty target, he’ll start cutting directly into the man, paying no attention to the lure, no matter how beautifully handled.

It was a punishing process. Just the constant rough travel, sleeping in bodegas and barns, or in roadside ditches, and existing on very little food was exhausting. Having to face crazily hooking, ring-wise animals was even more draining. And then sitting in a pasture after an impresario in some unknown village had stolen part of the gate receipts, nursing — if one was lucky and didn’t get gored — the pain of palotazos (blows of the sides of the horns) discouraged a good many apprentice toreros.

The novilleros who will fight in this weekend’s corridas may have to face some ugly bulls. Although that corrida will be much better organized than small pueblo events, it will probably seem wearily familiar to the young men determined to turn such unpromising circumstances into an exploration of courage and fear and art.

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