The hardest part, is watching,
when a bull doesn’t want to fight.
To see this muscled and behorned beast stand in the middle of the ring, looking around, shuffling its haunches trying to shake off whatever it is causing that pain in his back. He looks at that fool on the horse, those men waving those blankets, and all of us up in the stands, and he just stands there. Done. He wants none of it.
But he is not done- yet.
This is when I learn a large part of the matador’s job, a part I had not considered, is to maintain both the attention and ire of that bull. The taunting, the waving and twirling, is not merely pageantry but an attempt to focus a confused animal in a raucous arena, on fighting when it might rather just die.
And the bull will die.
With blood flowing from its hump, spears protruding from his back, he will get the sword and he will fall. He enters the ring a raging beast and leaves a carcass drug across the dirt by draft horses. There really is no excuse for this being entertainment. It is not just blood sport but execution for pleasure.
But when that bull is mad.
When it fights.
That is a show.
The bull is built to win. Strong, fast, aggressive, with its goring weapons built in. The man cannot do anything without the help of some other tools. Spears, swords, the walls of the arena, the entire arrangement is built to grant the matador some advantage, and yet his victory is never quite sure- though the bull’s defeat is definite. And it is fascinating. It is one of the oldest evidences of a completely first world behavior, the risking of human life in the process of doing something that could be done much better, safer and efficient, in some other way, almost any other way- in the name of sport. For fun.
Sitting in the grand stands of a giant arena, eating a chocolate churro filled with cream, my American friend and I are stunned into a silence when the first bull fell. All around us people are shouting Spanish words I do not know, waving white handkerchiefs in the air, and a brass band begins playing a dramatic dirge. The two of us pause, unused to confronting the death of an animal, or anything for that matter, live, right in front of us. We live and work in offices and restaurants, parks and museums, clubs and suburbs, all insulated from the death we know exists. We order a steak at Ruth’s Chris, bloody rare, drive past a dairy and complain of the smell, fully aware that we exploit both life and death for our own sustenance, and despite our knowledge and awareness of it all, we find ourselves ignorant in the presence of that moment of death.
I do not like it.
I am not comfortable. It makes me ashamed in a way I did not expect. Not simply ashamed for participating, or being complicit in a blood sport, but surprisingly ashamed that despite my awareness of death, my acceptance of it, I look away when in its presence.
I am more comfortable when someone else does it. Somewhere else. Where I can’t see.
Prosciutto, jamon, bacon, whatever, and I am fine with it. I can move past ignoring the devouring of what was once living, comfortably into rationalizing and prioritizing, but it is at the point of doing that I cringe.
My inbred ideas of manhood are offended not by the death itself but by my repulsion to it. I can work my way past the masculinity only to then be halted by class. I have the privilege of enjoying the fruits of others destruction, rejecting any value in being the one to do the work or endure the pain.
In my own self-loathing, respect for those down there in the ring begins to grow.
No matter what I think of any of this, I sit up here judging while they are down there doing. Confronting. Risking. Acting.
They can be wrong about all this and still be better than me.
And then, thanks to my inbred training, hundreds of years of practice, I work myself through all the ways I am not so bad. Sure there is this or that, but there is also that other this and that, and when taken in bulk- I am good.
And if I am good while sitting up here in my feelings and those brave enough to act are better- then they must be great.
So I too start to cheer.
I learn to love the flair and the bravery of man versus beast. I appreciate the vain glory martyrdom of fighting in the face of sure defeat. I respect the idea of offering one’s self up to do that dangerous thing in order to give the condemned a chance for one last win.
The matador, offering himself as potential sacrifice, so the condemned have a chance to condemn another to a shared fate.
Brave and dignified.
But then that bull just stands there.
And we show ourselves, all of us, for who we really are.