sadism: gratification derived from causing pain
That bulls are ritualistically tortured and slain before thousands of cheering fans in the 21st Century seems surreal. Yet, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals, some 250,000 bulls are killed in rings annually (40,000 in Europe, 210,000 in Latin America). 250,000.
Each year, Pamplona’s famous Running of the Bulls garners widespread media attention. Curiously, though, the coverage usually stops short of the bullring and the animals’ final fates. For the uninitiated, here is what happens:
Amid palpable excitement, the players parade into the arena, replete with ceremonial music and traditional garb. First, the matador (translated: killer) and his assistants, or banderilleros, will test the bull’s athleticism as he makes several passes at the cape. A mounted (the horse, to avoid ugly disembowelment, must wear protection that doesn’t always protect) picador will then thrust a lance into the bull’s neck. This sheds the first blood and serves to weaken the adversary. The banderilleros will then pierce the bull with barbed sticks (up to 6) to prep him for the final act. At this point, the bleeding bull will have difficulty holding his head aloft, and his compromised state facilitates the endgame. He is hurt, desperate, and confused.
The tercio de muerte begins with the unaccompanied matador re-emerging, carrying only his red cape (the color is irrelevant, for bulls are colorblind) and sword. The great toreros, being showmen first, incite several more passes from the wounded and exhausted bull before proceeding to the crescendo. The sword is plunged between the shoulder blades to the heart. Death, hopefully. But, as they are attacking a half-ton animal, their aim may be amiss (sometimes a lung is punctured, drowning the bull in his own blood), and the spinal cord must be severed with a knife. The matador will then absorb the wild applause. A particularly satisfied audience will petition for an ear or two as reward to the brave and dashing slayer, done, of course, in full view. For a pictorial account, click here and here.
Michael Kimmelman (Bullfighting Is Dead! Long Live the Bullfight!), NY Times art critic (yes, art critic), visited Spain to experience this particular version of Spanish culture and to capture the essence of bullfighting’s greatest artist, the larger-than-life (and elusive) Jose Tomas. On this day, Tomas’ first muse was treated thus: “Tomás finally thrust his sword between the bull’s shoulders, stopping his banderilleros from trying to exhaust the dying animal further. The matador waited, watching, as the bull first kneeled, then, like a demolished building, crumbled. People threw flowers, their seat cushions and stuffed animals while horses dragged the carcass away and Tomás, looking pleased with himself, took a triumphant lap around the ring.”
The sequel did not go as planned. The bull, bleeding and winded, became lethargic early. Tomas’ banderilleros tried pulling his tail, but he kept falling. The show had been jeopardized. Then, in ghastly theatrical fashion and “almost like a hypnotist, Tomás got the crippled, staggering animal to rise to his bait, and matador and bull managed a series of hair-raising, heartbreaking passes.” Here, Kimmelman, a cultured and respected journalist, actually questions whether this was prolonged torture or inspired genius. Finally: “The kill was appalling. After Tomás got the sword in, having bungled his first try, an assistant stabbed the fallen, struggling animal 11 times in the base of the head with his dagger before finally polishing him off by severing the spinal column. It was sickening. The crowd, displeased, counted each thrust, tauntingly. José Tomás walked off, shamed and distraught.”
Bullfighting remains legal and somewhat popular in southern France and Portugal (their no-kill corridas are anything but: the gravely injured bulls are simply killed off-camera), and it flourishes in Latin America (Mexico City is home to the world’s largest plaza de toros). But, as Kimmelman writes, “AS SPAIN GOES, so goes toreo….” Variously described as art, sport, or barbarity, bullfighting is perhaps the most polarizing issue in Spain today…