When I read that the Spanish province of Catalonia voted to outlaw bullfighting, I was not surprised. A few years ago I traveled through Spain to write about bullfighting. Along the way, I met Barcelona’s director of tourism, and asked her why bullfighting was much less popular in Barcelona than the rest of Spain. She replied, “It is because we are civilized.”
Bullfighting’s biggest opponents, in fact, have always been Spaniards. Even bullfighting’s fans don’t brag about the 13,000 bulls killed every year in the ring, or claim they deserve to be killed.
But I’m not sure we’re in a position to judge bullfighting too harshly. We kill more than 35 million cows every year, and 100 million pigs and eight billion chickens. Not even Birkenstocks grow on trees.
The Spanish bulls might have it better than your average American cattle. They’re not castrated or stuck in a veal pen, but roam freely on the range and mate for life. Whether it’s better to die by a cattle prod and a knife to the throat or a sword to the back, after being allowed a few swipes at the swordsman, is debatable. But if you’ve never seen a bull killed outside of a bullring, you might be just as appalled by an Omaha slaughterhouse.
No one claims a bull fight is fair. But it would be a mistake to think the whole thing is just a mere contest. The aficionados don’t go to the bullfights to see who “wins” any more than music critics go the opera to see who finishes first.
It’s not a game, but a performance. Done poorly, bullfighting is humiliating and revolting, diminishing everyone involved. One bad bullfighter I saw named Jesulin kept shuffling his feet as if he was standing on a frying pan. He had no poise, no control. The bull ran when he wanted it to stop; it stopped when he wanted it to run; and then it simply ignored him altogether and walked away, leaving him standing there like a suitor trying to look brave after being slapped in public. When he drew his sword to end the bull’s life, I had to look away. It was that bad.
But seeing it done well was just as memorable. Francisco Ordóñez is one of Spain’s best bullfighters. His grandfather was the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway’s Pedro Romero in “The Sun Also Rises.” Unlike Jesulin, Ordóñez planted his feet as if they’d been nailed there. He was fearless, and exuded complete control, like a conductor who could create exactly what he wanted with the slightest gesture – and knew it.
In just seconds, he and his four-legged partner were dancing like they’d been doing it for years – first slowly and separately, then quickly and closely, but always in concert, with Ordóñez leaving the bull in position for his next pass the way a good pool player leaves the cue ball poised for his next shot.
After a flurry of passes, Ordóñez nodded respectfully to the mesmerized bull, then strode confidently away from him, trusting the bull with his back. He did not work to impress the crowd, but the bull – and he did.
When the dance was over, Fran guided the long sword directly over the bull’s horns, and thrust downward into the bull’s back. He then walked away, certain he had done it right. Two beats later, the bull fell on its side.
Hemingway wrote, “From a moral point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible. But whoever reads this can only truly make such a judgment when he, or she, has seen the things that are spoken of here.”
Bullfighting might be many things, but only a person who has never seen it done well could claim it lacks courage, skill and art.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.