Bullfight posters are not hard to come by in Spain. Indeed, in any place in the country with touristic pretensions you can probably find a shop where they’ll inkjet your name on to some simulacrum of a traditional bullfight poster such that to the untrained eye it will look as though you yourself, alongside some José Tomás and Such-and-Such de la Frontera, were one of the three brave matadors who stared death in the eyes in Plaza de Toros de Madrid back in some timeless past and lived into the Disneyfied present to tell of it (what these posters in fact announce, of course, is that you or someone who cared enough about you to buy you a gift visited Spain). With its flick-of-the-wrist abstractions, and the bull about to enter the ring as though at the edge of some kind of black hole – with the blood-red text streaked, near the bottom, as though with blood – the image above, created by contemporary Majorcan artist Miquel Barceló, hardly resembles the iconic bullfight posters from which the aforementioned souvenirs take their folkloric cues. All the same, it is the most beautiful bullfighting poster I have ever seen, because the bullfight it was created to promote – on the 25th of September at the Plaza de Toros Monumental in Barcelona – was the last bullfight ever held in Catalonia.
I am no bullfighting expert. But having spent probably a quarter of my adult life in Spain, and a fair percentage of that time heading up groups of American high school students who naturally can’t go back home without having seen a Spanish bullfight, I’ve been to enough to know the basic script. Each bullfight features three matadors and six bulls, each of which gets his turn to die at the hands of one of the three matadors and his six assistants. When a bull is first released into the ring, the bullfighters responsible for that particular animal runs him around using a heavy gold and magenta cape to attract his attention. Once the bull has burned a bit of energy, the matador performs a series of the close passes of the sort images of which we have all seen if nowhere else painted onto the wall of some hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant somewhere. Eventually, a bugle sounds, announcing the end of the first stage of the bullfight and beginning of the second. During the second stage, a fellow called the “picador” rides into the ring on horseback carrying an enormous lance. The horse is blinded, so he won’t scare, and draped in an impenetrable padding – a suit of fabric armor, essentially. The bull, of course, knows nothing of impenetrable padding, and so he charges the horse with his killer’s instinct, and upon his approach the picador stabs him in the back of the neck with his lance, weakening the neck muscles so that the matador will eventually have easier access, past the now hanging head, when he goes in for the kill. When the bugles have once more sounded, the “banderilleros” take their turn. The banderilleros carry two barbed sticks, or banderillas, decorated in lovely bright colors. There are three banderilleros, and each takes a turn trying to jam the banderillas into the bull’s shoulder muscles, further weakening him. Usually, they do not succeed in planting all six banderillas – but at least three or four seem to always find their way in, and they dangle, colorful and blood drenched, during the final stage of the bullfight, the so-called “tercio de muerte,” the period of death. Here, the matador emerges with iconic red cape – the muleta, as its known, draped over a fake sword that, prior to going in for the kill, he will exchange for a real sword. Using the cape, the bullfighters makes a number of passes with the ostensible intention of getting the bull into a conveniently killable position, and once he has him there – inevitably, at this point, the animal is panting, mucous is flowing from nostrils and slobber dripping from his mouth, his stomach heaving heavily – he lowers the red cape, so that, as his eyes follow it, the bull’s head, already hanging low from the weakening of the neck muscles, drops even lower, and finally lunges in for the kill. If the kill goes well, the sword passes between the shoulder blades and directly into the heart. In this case, blood often starts to flow from all of the bull’s orifices, Ebola-like, and it’s not long before, spun in dizzying circles by the matador’s assistants with their pink and magenta capes, he drops dead. More often than not, the sword does not go in clean between the shoulder blades and into the heart on the first try. Sometimes it hits bone and rebounds, sailing into the air and dropping to the blood-spattered sand, where it will be recovered by one of the matador’s assistants and returned to him for a second try. Often, it goes in halfway, or a third of the way. When this happens, in many cases, the bull – once it has been spun around enough times – falls over, often buckling at the knees, but frequently does not die. In this case, one of the assistants takes a little dagger and jams it directly into the bull’s spinal chord, at which point – usually with a spasm – the animal mercifully expires. A team of mules, whipped into action, hauls the body from the ring, and the sand is turned over before the next bull comes out, met by the next matador on the list, and the whole scene repeats itself all over again.
In light of the above, that one should “consider the bull,” to borrow a turn of phrase from the late David Foster Wallace, probably goes without saying. But these days that bull isn’t even what it used to be. In an article published in Spain’s El País newspaper in advance of last Sunday’s bullfight in Barcelona, Antonio Lorca described the bull of the contemporary bullfight as pitifully denatured by the time it enters the ring – its horns filed down and, though the subject is taboo, usually chemically sedated. In a sense, today’s toro bravo has been stripped of his existence even before the vicious spectacle of the bullfight itself. It is out of consideration for the bull, or the perverse cyborg that it has become, that, in recent years, protesters have lined the streets radiating like spokes from La Monumental before and after bullfights, raising placards and voices in an effort to at once shame and, in the best of cases, convert spectators (horrified foreigners on their way out were inevitably the protesters’ easiest marks). Ultimately, however, the Catalan ban on bullfighting has nothing to do with ethics or torture and a lot to do with economics – bullfights have long since ceased to be profitable in Catalonia, in particular – and even more with nationalism. Catalonia’s cultural mainstream would like nothing more than to become dissociated once and for all from the so-called “España profunda” of which the bullfight, regardless of its contemporary economic and cultural irrelevance, remains an abiding symbol. Thus, Catalan correbous, or bull runs, remain a popular tradition in small town Catalonia despite the fact that, even without taking a sword through the heart, the bulls suffer terribly during them, and frequently die afterwards from shock or injury. But these are lean times for those of us who still find sustenance in the hope for a better world – times when it doesn’t pay to be too picky or exacting. Faced with the dismantling of the European welfare state in the name of a cynical economic fatalism, we should welcome, whatever the real reasons behind the end of bullfighting in Catalonia, what looks a lot like progress according to the old liberal intuition – engine of the great democratic projects of modernity – that the suffering and destruction of sentient beings, if a necessary coefficient of the survival of the same, is bad, and wherever possible to be avoided.