Tango of Death
Bullfighting and the International Cheeseburger

Lance Mason

© Copyright 2021 by Lance Mason

Gunman and children.

In The Resurrection, Tolstoy said, "People instinctively keep to the circle … who share their views of life and their own place in it." Yet today’s world vividly illustrates the risks of “keeping to the circle,” of reinforcing, rather than challenging, one’s closely-held beliefs. Through the various lenses of history as well as regional cultures, relative ethics, and tolerance, "The Tango of Death" attempts not to justify but to explore and understand Spanish bullfighting, a topic and tradition outside many people’s “circle,” and charged with emotion and politics.

Four of us, on graduating from a university that shall remain nameless to shield its dignity, travelled overland through Mexico and attended a bullfight in Villa Union, on the outskirts of Mazatlan. This was about an Ice Age ago. Carnival-like and sloppy, the bullfight flirted with ignominy, and one of our party, legless on tequila, beer, and fragrant little cigarettes, made a spectacle of himself by shouting scatological epithets in español gringo as he swung from a rafter in the tiny arena. This brought sardonic laughter rather than scorn from the crowd, who recognized a pathetic fool when they saw one. I won't abuse the reader’s attention by cataloguing his flagrant attempts to confirm the audience’s judgment.

A few years later, halfway through grad school and with two Dutchman in tow, I passed through Pamplona, Spain in a VW Microbus during the city’s famous Feria del Toro de San Fermín in early July. Through careless inattention, I missed much of the festival's detail and, indeed, the bullfights. Unrestricted access to wine may have played a role.

Until recently, these were the limits of my first-hand exposure to the Iberian tradition of la corrida de toros, so I had little by which to gauge its merits, if it had any. When I decided to change that, this problem, to which I will now digress, began.

I have many friends in Spain. Pablo, Ana, and their kids Iñigo, Rodri, and Patri live on the north-facing Cantabrian coast, west of Bilbao. I met Pablo in the 1980s while playing rugby with his brothers Enrique and Andrés in California. Enrique, with Silvia and their children Dani and Marta, now makes his home in Alcala de Henares, Cervantes’s birthplace. Ana’s brother Davíd works and lives in Madrid with his wife Vega, while the elegant Jorge and Elvira reside in Marbella. Another friend, Mercedes, and her siblings run López de Heredia, their family-owned winery in Haro, a foothill town in the district of Alta Rioja.

My heart holds a deep affection for these people, and for Spain, where hospitality is a natural virtue. With its robust heritage in art, architecture, literature, food, and wine, Spain’s historical psychology is rich and emotional, refreshing and mature, a unique mixture of pride in her achievements and a mea culpa self-consciousness over any sins of her past. As the Pyrenees had protected her vineyards from the phylloxera plague in the 19th Century, they had also been a barrier between Spain’s unique character and the chaos and perfidy of the "other Europe" for most of the 20th Century. In 1986, though, Spain crossed the mountains and partnered with the EU, spoiling what was, to me, a dignified isolation.

Still, Spain’s is a personality I relish, so I decided to test that attachment by witnessing a part of her identity that has been both championed and attacked for centuries—the Spanish bullfight. The rising controversy over bullfighting, in opinions artistic, political, and historical, made me want to see this cultural battlefield for myself before it vanished. Pablo, though in his mid-forties and born in Madrid, had never seen una corrida either, and was also cautiously keen.

There are seasons for la corrida de toros—Spring in Madrid, Summer in Pamplona, August in Bilbao—but none of these had dovetailed with my annual visits to Spain . . . yet. In the meantime, I reread Or I’ll Dress You in Mourning, Matador, and Death in the Afternoon, three English-language classics on the subject, and regained the little bullfighting knowledge I’d once had. At last, I coordinated dates with Pablo, and we arrived at Las Ventas Arena in central Madrid on a Tuesday evening in early June.

Love him or loathe him, no American author has written with such authority on the skills and modern mythology of the bullfight as Ernest Hemingway. While the man as well as the author may have recently fallen from favor with the politically correct, his work describing so many aspects of this subject forms a broad, if biased, vein of expertise. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway reasoned that to condemn this tradition as cruel, inhuman, and immoral cultural theater, without first learning its basic nature, was a crude and clumsy path that blinded one to the complexity of what it is and what it represents.

In a lighter tone, Hemingway drew parallels between la corrida and wine-drinking, and how the reputation and position of either will suffer unfairly when denounced by the inexperienced. I found some persuasion in this argument, not least because I am reluctant to give short shrift to any activity, in this case bullfighting, that might compare favorably to the appreciation of wine.

Built in the Moorish style in the east of the city, and opened in 1931, Plaza Monumental de Las Ventas del Espíritu Santo, the world’s foremost venue for bullfighting, is perfectly circular and lined with tier upon tier of backless, cement bleachers. Twenty-five thousand madrileños cram into quarters close enough to give “intimate” a new meaning. Pablo and I found our numbered spots on the concrete terrace, perched our respective backsides on rented cushions, and, in a short time, had the barrel-shaped torsos of two strangers—one for each of us—wedged between our splayed-out thighs.

The men, seated on the next tier down, were brothers and, along with two other men packed hard on Pablo’s left, were bullfight aficionados. Indeed, so was the entire arena compared to us. As with any new experience, an aficionado—a true one—can be a passionate, reliable guide through the veils of ignorance and naïveté.

Compared to public spectacles such as high-profile sports events, pop concerts, film, and so on, saturated with Madison Avenue propaganda, a bullfight is virtually devoid of gratuitous hype. It is not distorted, sanitized, or homogenized by modern media for commercial gain—no LED slo-mo-replay screens, no commercial breaks, no glitz-glam cheerleaders or phony PR hoopla. It’s gritty, basic, and real, much as it has been for hundreds of years.

La corrida occurs in three acts—and the reader is cautioned not to try this at home. First, the bull, nearly always from the southern region of Andalusia, stalks into the ring and is taunted by three or four men using large, colored capos (capes), exciting the bull’s athletic grace and gravity while disturbing his equanimity. As two picadores enter on horseback, the bull picks one and charges. The rider defends his horse with a lance, fighting, tiring, and frustrating the bull by levering the horse's weight against him. In the second phase, three banderilleros, each in succession, challenge the bull in the open and, as the bull charges, leap aside and stab two barbed, ribanded banderillas into the hide of the bull’s back. Finally, the matador (killer) strides out, may literally throw his hat in the ring, and then uses a small cape, the muleta, to engage the bull, dance with him, evoke his spirit in the arena, and, when it comes to it, kill him at close quarters with a sword, el estoque.

In a full corrida de toros, there are six clashes, three matadors facing two bulls each. There are myriad traits, turns, and attitudes that comprise the performances of the toreros (bullfighters) as well as the bulls. Speed, strength, endurance, determination, guile, and something which I can only call fair play are all qualities on which toros y toreros are judged. Among some season-ticket holders near us, there was agreement that one bull we had seen had been especially "noble" because, having thrown un picador from his horse onto the ground, the bull hadn't gored him to death when the chance was there. Pablo seriously but delicately questioned our "advisors" about this praise for the bull's character, but we were assured unanimously that it was so.

If a bull, then, can be noble, can he also be courageous? Courage implies choice, to confront an apparent threat rather than avoid or evade it. Yet a bull, when threatened or challenged, follows its basic drives, fighting for territorial and physical dominance. This is not a choice, but animal instinct.

What about the matador? Is courage required to face two bayonet-like horns driven by fourteen hundred pounds of enraged taurine hormones and muscle? Perhaps, yet the matador would need much more bravery against experienced bulls, for, by strict requirement, no bull who faces un torero has done so before, because an experienced bull would be a killing machine. Indeed, every bull is new to the game, with no clear notion of what is about to unfold, always handicapped by this fiat of required innocence and ignorance. If fairness, then, is not part of the equation, is the matador still brave?

On this calm June night we saw six bulls fought, all killed, but not all cleanly. Yet, even to the eyes of your tinhorn writer, the third matador in his second fight, el final de la tarde, showed a mastery of technique, commitment, and devotion surpassing by far what his calling and the crowd expected of him. Following steady work by los caperos, picadores, and bandarilleros, this matador confronted and engaged the bull with consummate focus and grace. He showed only respect and attention toward the bull, working under the crowd’s mounting tension and applause by ever-closer maneuvers around the horns and shoulders, sweeping the muleta low and close across the animal’s snout and over his ears. Throughout these faenas, these artistic, bloody tangos, his footwork was dexterous, rhythmic, and steady from five feet . . . two . . . one, and then inches, as his hip wiped blood, sweat, and sand from the flanks of the bull. The torero was not an opportunist, exploiting the bull’s increasing weakness to gain cheap favor with the crowd. He pressed his body to the bull’s, embracing the animal’s instinct and spirit despite its failing strength.

However, killing of the bull was the next step, and I found my mind and heart—and my stomach—shying away from the ritual. I had come to Las Ventas to experience the true and full custom of bullfighting, and death for the bull was the climax of that, and so I watched. But I neither enjoyed it nor relished the fluidity with which the swordsman brought the bull's life to an end. I didn’t feel a sense of disgrace or abuse of the animal, just a sharp sadness that his life had ended. Some part of me wanted to see the sword withdrawn and the animal spring up, end the theater, and go back to his field and his cows and his Andalusian life.

At the death, the crowd was ecstatic, cheering crazily, all on their feet, waving white handkerchiefs, swaying, shouting, laughing, thrilled at the level of performance they had seen. Red roses rained down onto the sand, blending and disappearing into the blood. Then the dark, barbaric touch appeared—the matador held aloft the ears of the “noble bull.” He took his kudos gladly and with vigor from the crowd, who poured into the arena and carried him away on their shoulders and into the streets. Aficionados from clubs and restaurants in the neighborhood massed around and cheered and took photos in the failing, evening light.

If you wanted to go to a bullfight, that's the one you wanted to see. Was I glad for having gone? For the celebration of an ancient rite and custom of a people I admire, I was. Could I support its continuation now that I’ve seen it for myself? Yes. Would I go again? I haven't decided, but not because I condemn it. In fact, the finale of that summer night was an all-enthralling performance, and I value it because I might never see it duplicated. Does everyone have to witness la corrida to have an opinion that makes sense to them? No. Should those devoted to the custom and its history be pilloried for their devotion? Or, perhaps more relevant to the politics, do the opponents of the bullfight have the right to pillory and demonize the adherents? That, certainly, is the question on which the future of la corrida hinges.

It is no secret that this locally venerated cultural rite is in a fight for its survival. There is a moral stridency in its opponents that speaks to the militancy of their beliefs, and any notable move against la corrida, whether from outside or inside Spain, gets international press coverage. Perhaps the "hottest news" on this was the bullfighting ban imposed by the province of Catalunya in 2012. The anti-corridistas have used this as propaganda, but this story has an under-story, illustrated in capsule form by a brief encounter this writer had with some Barcelona cyclists in the hills of the eastern province of Priorata. Though we were strangers, they went to some trouble to declare in English that they were "no Spaneech," but Catalan, a group that has long pursued independence from Spain.

One has to ask if banning la corrida speaks to Catalans’ special reverence for animals, or if it was a political ploy to attack Big Brother Spain's identity and reputation on the world stage? Was it Catalan virtue, or were they just trying to stake out the high moral ground for the media? On the other hand, perhaps Catalunya's rejection of bullfighting proves their point—they are not Spanish.

Allegations of animal cruelty are ready-made headliners, for the more an animal is like us the more judgmental we are of its treatment. While bulls aren’t too much like us, they are more like us than black mambas or piranhas are. Ferdinand, a dreamy, Disney cartoon bull c. 1938, sealed the deal against bullfighting for millions of viewers by cuddling trees, smelling flowers, and ruining the steely-nerved image of matadors. Kipling, A. A. Milne, and Pixar continue to soften the human heart toward "the beast," regardless of its stripe and color, especially when the animal sings, dances, or does stand-up like Eddie Murphy.

In this vein, bullfighting’s opponents—the Humane Society, PETA, et al—argue that human-animal empathy is part of the natural order, and that bullfighting is not, so they wage war against it. The "antis" range from sincere to hypocritically militant, and have much on their side: popular compassion, popular politics, their own form of logic, and a strong pitch. And Ferdinand. And numbers—the number of those who do not support bullfighting is several multiples of the number who do. However, as any good pollster will tell you, not supporting a cause is different than opposing it. Though 75% of Spaniards oppose tax support for la corrida, that does not mean 75% of Spaniards oppose bullfighting; claiming it does, or even implying that, smacks of deception.

In summary, these opposing arguments create my dilemma: Do I go back to Las Ventas and watch another bullfight?

By any standards in what we know as "the civilized world,” animal cruelty is damnable. Yet what defines cruelty? For many centuries, the Spanish toro bravo has been studied, bred, and raised specifically and only for the bullfight, with the best land, the best food, the best treatment, and, some say, the best sex of any similar creature. Does this constitute cruelty—five or six years of "Bull Heaven" in exchange for fifteen minutes of a rigged contest and death? Pablo prefers this apparent cruelty over how the "civilized world" breeds and slaughters chickens, cattle, pigs, and sheep in conditions demonstrably less ethical those in the life and death of a Spanish bull.

The comparison—la corrida vs. selling cheeseburgers and processed chicken parts—is a politically and emotionally loaded one, and the bullfight’s legacy is similarly loaded. Bullfighting's opponents cry bloodlust and brutality, while everyone involved in its traditions, from the ganaderias, where the bulls are bred and raised, to the seat-cushion vendor at the plaza de toros, endeavors to maintain the bullfight's true and authentic character. Which of these attitudes is ethical and which self-serving? Out of this question comes a handful more. Are the bulls not coerced and manipulated into their fates? Yet doesn’t natural selection manipulate the fate of all animals through forces we can't control? Are the bulls faced squarely and honestly, or are they tricked through low deception? Are they killed with exploitive intent, or with some form of respect for their dignity? Are la corrida’s supporters ruthless, satanic butchers, or are its opponents cultural bigots with a political agenda?

Dignity for the bull” is a phrase worth some study. Is dignity inherent to animals, or do we call something dignified because of what that reflects on us? Do we project onto an animal some trait humans admire, and then call that trait dignity to glorify our own place above it in the hierarchy of worth? On the other hand, if the bull does have a "natural dignity," can that virtue be respected and honored while a ritual of violence is worked upon the animal in a bullfight? I find the answer complicated.

It's the bullfight apologists’ view that without la corrida there would be no “natural dignity,” because without the old, evolved system that brought the bulls into existence, and maintains their bloodlines and vigor—the ranches and breeders, the aficionados and the culture—the herds would have long ago faded away through domestication and competition for resources. The argument is that bullfighting gives more to the lives of the bulls than it takes away. Yet does creating and owning the system—the stage for the violence—justify the violence? Is it ethical to breed a strain of animals, and then sacrifice its individuals, parading and killing them, for a system’s cultural traditions? This raises again the question of cruelty. If the system exists to inflict suffering, then breeding an animal for that purpose does not meet even a basic standard of human ethics.

However, as I let myself become absorbed in the rituals of Las Ventas, it was clear that inflicting suffering on the bull is not the purpose of the bullfight. It is an outcome, and it is inevitable, but it is not why the custom exists. For its devotees, la corrida is a form of worship, perhaps cultish, perhaps tribal, but strong, old, and reverent, nonetheless. A part of this reverence is depicted in the story of the “Osborne Bulls.”

As you drive along fields and pasture lands in parts of the Spanish countryside, you may see huge, silhouette cutouts, depicted in black, of the fighting bull. Dotted across the landscape for decades, they were once the marketing logo for Osborne sherries. When roadside advertising was banned in 1994, they were to be removed, but a tumult of public outcry led to a special-heritage designation, and these symbols of Spanish self-identity were preserved. Today, in addition to these original monuments spread over hill and dale, the black bull appears in many forms, from trinkets to national icons, as a symbol and testimony to the pride Spaniards invest in this animal.

The bulls of la corrida are revered, and their breeding, their care, and even their death, in its ceremony and tradition, speak to that reverence and a history that reaches back at least to the 5th-Century Visigoths. The bullfight supports emotions and a connectedness that some Spaniards feel with their past, with their predecessors, and with vivid portrayals that live on in this complex, public display. Still, it crosses boundaries that, for its antagonists, have become taboo, and this polarity raises the question, "What is forbidden, and why?"

Animal worship is ancient and, indeed, not forbidden. Tribes native to the Americas worshipped many of the animals they killed, and still do. Throughout history, the world's indigenous groups have deified the animals they killed, for both food and ritual, and revered their totems. In the Gadhimai “festival of death,” Hindus conducted the largest animal slaughter in the world for their spiritual beliefs, until foreign “culture warriors” forced its end. We see African groups who, like their ancestors, kill animals according to sacrificial rites like ukweshwama, that are not only freely allowed but considered sacred. It is ironic that, for centuries, African native people have been violated by imported regimes, and now imported ethics are condemning those same native people for their treatment of animals.

My trail through bullfighting’s bloody culture turned up “National Heroics: Bullfighters, Machismo and the Cult of Celebrity” (2012 British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies), by Hunter College’s Tara Zanardi, an authority on European, especially Spanish, artistic vision. Her paper depicts many centuries of the bullfight’s intricate cultural and political contexts in Spanish life, as well as its illustration in the work of celebrated artists. Patriotism, heroism, rising from humble birth, and embracing the agricultural heart of the country—these are represented as symbolic themes in the emotional psychology of Spain. Zanardi weaves artistic traditions, celebrity, strength, and self-made nobility into the fabric of the populace and its relation to the aristocracy, especially the Bourbon royal family.

Zanardi cites Goya, Velasquez, Carnicero, and Mora as illustrators of the role of la corrida de toros in the socio-cultural life of Spain, and shows the 18th-century transition from horse-mounted bullfighting, by the nobility alone, to a foot-borne event performed by and for the peasantry. This lives on as a symbol of the commoner being uplifted to the drama, style, and mythical heroism associated with the lore of bullfighting.

Her analysis of art’s relation to bullfighting doesn’t make Zanardi an aficianado, but her testimony, based on deep expertise, shows la corrida de toros to be more than an afternoon diversion, and more than thoughtless butchery. To those who are part of its narrative, bullfighting was never a sport, never a circus amusement slotted into everyday life. It reaches back thousands of years to a primitive time in human history when life was a physical struggle against threatening forces of all kinds, and the bullfight is a ritual celebration of overcoming those challenges.

As we have seen, the Spanish fighting bull would never have come to be without the centuries-old system of breeding and la corrida. That is a practical fact. But let’s set that fact aside and ask about emotional factors like compassion, humane behavior, and biological ethics. Neuroscience shows that, in my brain's role as the Grand Arbiter of my daily life, the emotional centers are the lead actors in my choices (see John Cassidy’s “Mind Games,” The New Yorker, 2006). The emotional factors that dictate my choices are real, but can my culture's emotions dictate what other humans choose via their culture’s emotions? No, because the emotional gears of one culture do not necessarily mesh with those of another.

In weighing these emotions, we have to ask, Is another person’s culture more valid than the culture of la corrida? Bullfighting honors ancient savage rituals framed around the injury and execution of an animal, something that, on its face, seems reprehensible. Yet denouncing the cultures of others is a common human failing, and, like slander or envy, too often wrong. My belief system can point an accusing finger at other cultures in other places, demonizing them, while I can ignore the contradictions and shortcomings of my own, and too often do.

In Madrid, as I watched each encounter of man and bull, and felt apprehension and fearful misgivings as the sword was unsheathed, I saw bullfighting as a dramatization of both life and death, and of primitive urges: the ritual of confrontation and courage in the face of danger; the successful hunt and slaughter for food; protection from attack. Some supporters of bullfighting grasp it as a bond to the ancient ways of their forebears, who battled many dangers to feed their group and survive. Poverty and desperation for food is not such an old memory in Spain, so the psychic connection of the slaughter of stock to the life of Spaniards can be very real.

The animal world, the real world, is full of danger and death. Is the bullfight simply a stylized performance of the primitive drive to overcome the fears and dangers of a threatening world? A centuries-long retelling of the techniques and resolve to vanquish danger? Does bullfighting get condemned because death carries so much fear?

No question that, at close quarters, a bullfight is a brutal and coercive custom, but one that is old, revered, and honestly rendered by its practitioners and afficianados. The animals exist—are bred, born, and raised—for this purpose alone. Aren’t we all animals, competing, surviving, and suffering, and using forms of ritual display to celebrate who and what we are? Is it my place to vilify the Spanish culture for how it does this? Unless one is, all at once, a supporter of PETA, a non-owner of pets, an opponent of zoos, a vegan, and a protestor against all the world’s sources of cheeseburgers, isn't condemning the bullfight simple hypocrisy? Moreover, even if someone is a true believer of all these things, why is their worldview the sacred text?

Is all of this a moral defense for bullfighting? Assuming such a defense was necessary assumes that one viewpoint has moral superiority over another and holds the ethical compass to pronounce the opposition’s institutions evil and corrupt. That permits a livid indignation and a militancy against another people’s customs and traditions, and licenses a crusade that is evangelical in its conviction. Thanks very much, but I’ve seen that in the flesh, and just can’t muster the self- righteousness.

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