MOMENT OF TRUTH

The following was written by an American who lived opposite a bullring whilst on a teaching assignment in Spain.

The most senseless and cheapest displays of human cruelty, selfishness and irresponsibility are those cases in which society, the government and the church approve of cruel entertainment involving animals, often under the pretext of defending tradition, without recognising that tradition, like most things, can be good or bad, sublime or despicable. Holding gladiatoral combats to entertain the public, throwing young women into volcanoes to appease the gods and burning heretics or witches are no longer acceptable traditions although they certainly were once. Of the disgusting "traditions" still in existence the bullfight is the worst.

I went to Spain on a teaching assignment and by chance I moved into an apartment directly across from the bullring in a beautiful city in the south. I had always looked at the bullfight academically and I understand the claims it had as a tradition. Although I had never found it interesting, I knew it had symbolic value in a country that had suffered continuous war for thousands of years. Spain, practically a natural bridge between Europe and Africa and an important strategic point for controlling the Mediterranean has always been subjected to invasions and the ravages of war. Until very recent times, Spain has never had peace and its many struggles include an 800 year religious war with the Moors. The constant threat of raids and the mountainous nature of the landscape made the villages extraordinarily cohesive units with strong bonds between the local people as well as a basic distrust for outsiders. In such an environment it is easy to accept a ritual where the bullring is a representation of the village and the bull becomes the invader the noble fighting men annihilate while the entire population cheers on. One of the most common justifications for the bullfight has always been the value it supposedly has for keeping the fighters in shape for war. In Spain this value has not been only physical, it has also been psychological and symbolic, so the bullfight caught on well and became a part of the reality of aggression that existed.

Although it was war that justified it, it seems also likely that the impetus that led to the perpetuation of the Spanish concept of fighting bulls may have been religious. Mithraism, a cult that used the bull as one of its central symbols, became a major rival of Christianity during the late Roman Empire of which Spain was an important part. The cult was particularly popular among Roman soldiers, many stationed in Spain. Sensing a real threat from within, the Christian leaders became concerned and in Toledo in 447 AD. defined the devil theologically. The devil, they said, was large, black, with homes, cloven hooves, hair, a tail, and other bovine characteristics. It was, in short, a bull. Although Christian Rome usually forbade the public killing of animals, in the case of the bullfight religious approval was easily obtained and it persists till today to the point that benefit church bullfights are common and many major bullfighting events (such as the famous San Fermin festivities in Pamplona) are held in honor of specific saints. The approval of the church and the involvement of fighting men led to the national acceptance of the bullfight as a symbol of a society where the constant presence of violent death justified an aggressive alliance between the military and the church. In Spain it has always been difficult to know which of the two one was likely to need at any moment.

It is easier to understand the psychological, military and religious reasons why the bullfight caught on than it is to determine it’s actual historical beginnings. Some argue the bullfight has been around since paleolithic times, and it is, of course, likely that the same people who painted aurochs in Altamira may have fought and killed them for their use. It is not very likely that considering the dangers involved they would have killed them just for fun, although some kind of ceremony may have been held in connection with the hunts. First the Romans and then the Visigoths who controlled the Iberian Peninsula until 711 were known to have bullfights, and the Moors who invaded the peninsula that year hunted wild boars on horseback in Africa and used the same methods for lancing bulls when they arrived in Spain. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance bullfighting in Christian Spain was almost exclusively performed by knights and noblemen on horseback. The bullfight as it is today has only existed since the 18th Century when the French, who found the bullfight repugnant, influenced the court to such an extent that noblemen lost interest. Groups of peasants who had worked for the nobility positioning, distracting and helping to finish the bulls on foot, began to develop their own techniques and attracted the attention of the public as the noblemen disappeared from the plazas.

Although I had reflected on these things for their cultural value I had never taken the time to see myself what actually went on in a bullfight. The more I learned the more disturbing the brutality became. The violence begins before conception. The mother cow is chosen for her tenacity in defending herself against painful punishment. If she passes the test she is bred by a bull chosen as much for his powerful body as for his aggressiveness. The bullfight thus begins with the aggression and forced breeding of the female.

When the bull is fought four years later, he is methodically destroyed in moves calculated to dominate his tortured body and breach his dignity, through pain. This is never accomplished, although the bullfight does succeed admirably in showing an absence of human dignity in people. Corruption reigns before the bull is let out into the ring. If too spirited, the bull is beaten, his vision blurred, even bones are broken. If unwilling to fight, chemicals are painted on his legs to make them burn so he cannot keep them still and will appear spirited and eager to fight. Pins are often inserted in the genitals. It is important to realise that as herbivores, bulls are not by nature aggressive to people and normally attack only as a measure of defence when isolated from the herd. As one bullfighter put it, “on one small ranch... I often went out on foot with the foreman to walk among the two-year olds and actually scratch their heads and flanks.” There are photographs of children walking around safely among bulls to be used on oncoming bullfights.

Once the bull is in the ring the torture is scientifically intensified to break his spirit and disable his body. As he comes in, a sharp instrument is rammed into his neck at the most essential muscle knot where his defence is generated. A few minutes later a “picador” on horseback twists a surgical steel blade into the bull’s neck to further destroy the muscles and reduce the lateral and vertical head movements, diminishing the danger to the matador immensely. The blood flows from the wounds of the neck in a continuous stream and in the weakness that necessarily follows, the bull is forced to spread his legs to keep his balance. Some bulls can’t take the pain and fall on their knees. When this happens, the crowd boos and throws bottles. If the bull takes the pain, the baderillas — scientifically designed to dig deeper and deeper with every movement that presents a threat to the men — are inserted. With the bull’s capacity to defend himself severely impaired, the matador comes into the ring to do his elegant passes, what Siqueires, the renowned Mexican muralist called “the dance of the butchers”. The statistics confirm the extent of the odds in the “contest of nobility” as bullfighters usually call the bullfight: one bullfighter dies for every eighteen-thousand bulls tortured and killed. More bullfighters die in automobile accidents than in the ring.

Once the matador has strutted his stuff it is time to kill the bull. If the bull is to die quickly, the sword must be plunged with the proper force and in the perfect direction into an area of the neck the size of a bottle cap. It rarely happens. Most of the time the bull is gutted internally. The “experts” watch the colour of the blood pouring from the mouth of the animal and offer their educated guesses as to what is actually happening inside: did the sword enter the lungs? Was the aorta penetrated? Is he drowning in his own blood? At this point men with capes do all they can to force the bull to move so they can insure the destruction of the internal organs by the misplaced sword so the matador will look like a better killer. Sometimes the bull will collapse after a while. If death - as it often happens - still does not follow, eventually someone severs the spinal medulla with a special instrument and the bull finally dies.

This calculated torment of the body is co-ordinated with an equally premeditated psychological effort to control the will of the animal. The bull, for example, will try to return to certain places within the ring where he feels stronger for one reason or another. These places are called “querencias” and appeal to the bull for various reasons. One “querencia” is usually by the entrance where the proximity of other bulls or the relative safety of confinement are near. Another is an area where the sand gets more shade and is more humid so the thirst created by the massive loss of blood is given hope of placation. Another is commonly a place where the bull has gored a horse and feels a little more hope of triumph. In all these cases the bull is methodically manipulated away from the “querencia” to intensify the psychological despair and establish fuller control of mind, spirit and body. As Santiago Esteras Gil says, in 20 minutes "a bull is transformed from a beautiful, energetic, proud animal into a defeated, humiliated, bloody, painful being, dragging his agony through the sand."

While the suffering of the bull shows our capacity for premeditated cruelty, the suffering of the horses reveals a comparable capacity for a human lack of gratitude and dignity. The economics of the business take over. Inexpensive old horses who have worked all their lives are used for the bullfight. They can no longer serve their masters because their worn old bodies give out. Unable to exploit them any further and unwilling to maintain them any longer their owners sell them for a few pieces of money to be killed in the bullfight. One has to understand that people who sell their horses to be gored are by the very nature of the act not prime examples of responsible ownership. One has to understand how these horses are abused to appreciate the ingratitude this entails. One has to visualise what it is like to wake up in the morning with the slash of a whip or a slam of the stick. What it is like to be given a minimum of sustenance and to be forced to carry and pull weights that overpower one’s strength. What it is like to be forced to work in the intense heat of the Spanish summer with little water and to be given no protection in the intense cold of the winters. What is is like to live day to day without hope of anything different. When their broken old bodies finally give out, the horses are rewarded by making them the target of an enraged bull’s horns. The jaws of the horse are always shaking with fear. The horses are always gored. Nearby a man called a “monosabio” stands by. His job is to push the intestines of the horse back into the abdomen if another attack can be withstood. The success of a bullfight is often measured by the number of horses disembowelled and killed. If a horse does not die, gangrene invariably sets in, but if there is a chance he could be used again he is often kept alive until the next bullfight to be used again as target for another bull for a few minutes of tenor. A newspaper reporter who went into the depths of the bullring as an observer describes it as follows:

“Four horses have died and give more are in very serious condition. They are dying on the floor, their eyesight humid, their ears hanging, with anguished breathing while they inject them with massive doses of penicillin. Their bellies are distended, like a large ball of rags. Now and then from above the black and pestilent blood flows out”.

Imagine yourself under those conditions, kept alive beyond the relief of death for the pleasure of those who control you so they can enjoy the cheapness of seeing you die again.

This is the reality of the Glory of Spain, the national spectacle for which the country is known throughout the world, the art ignorant tourists support in exchange for what they believe to be “mystery” and which turns out to be no more than a lack of human dignity. The mystery of Spain is in the tragedy of it’s sorrowful past not in the cheap revenge of taking it out on a guiltless animal. The bullfight makes me ashamed of being human. To claim this can be done in the name of God and that it represents all Spanish people is cheap and arrogant. There is no defence for the bullfight. At one time it may have been representative of an isolated, invaded, suffering Spain and as such it’s development may have been academically understood albeit not morally justified. Now it is a ridiculous anachronism in a world in which Spain is becoming well integrated, economically stable and free of war. The bullfight today is as counter productive for Spain psychologically as it would be inefficient as a preparation for war in a nuclear military world in which the sword’s only value lies in a museum.

For the Government and the church to condone and encourage this is not only offensive to the world but also immoral, not just to the animals, but to the Spanish people whose beauty is immensely better respected by music, dance, food, art and hospitality. In the past, the Popes who criticised the bullfight were quickly threatened into silence by the Spanish crown. In modern times the Hispanic world has constituted a major segment of Catholicism and political pressures have kept the Popes from confronting the bullfight as cruel and unacceptable. This can no longer be tolerated. The cruel torture of these animals represents an attitude of abuse towards nature and the oppressed that is not acceptable as a part of religion. How much time do we need in order to see that God did not put everything on the earth for us to rape and plunder? Is it not evident to religion by now that this belief is wrong? The belief that God gave us everything for our use and well being reached it’s peak at about the same time as the industrial revolution was picking up impetus. In order to justify the abuses that were setting the trends of environmental destruction, it was necessary to convince people that God had placed everything on the earth for our exclusive use. The degree of stupidity that this concept generated was astonishing. It was even thought that the relatively sweet smell of horse manure was due to God’s concern with not offending human noses. Since humans found it necessary to work near horses, God made their manure sweet. Just about anything could be justified or tried because God had placed the earth under the complete control of humans. If an idea was too far fetched to bejustified on the basis of pure faith on God’s will, one could always resort to the mysteries of science for the justification that could not be proved wrong. Even as far back as Descartes, when students complained about the horrible pain he inflicted on unanesthetized dogs, he invariably explained that their howls and screams were purely mechanical responses and not a reflection of pain. To this day I continue to think he must have been very stupid, very evil, or so caught up in the human ego trip of the moment that he refused to see reality.

Bad science and bad religion have a history of opportunism in a grandiose display of hypocrisy. It claims it has the right to use animals because "God" placed them here for our use and as the darlings of God we can do what we please with God’s creation. Bad science therefore will promote either evolutionary or creationist theories according to whatever is more convenient at the moment. Bad religion, on the other hand, is equally opportunistic, advocating the existence of a benevolent God, yet allowing cruelty to be performed for God’s honour and in God’s name, an idea I find repugnant, hypocritical, unacceptable and in need of challenge. The church still chooses to continue to believe the obsolete idea that God placed us in command and put the world at our disposal, an idea that according to the most recent scientific realisations, is killing us. How can the Pope in good faith make it permissable to use this idea to torture animals methodically in the name of God? How is it possible that the same church that canonized St. Francis of Assissi, a man who always looked down on the path as he walked to make sure he did not step on any worms or insects, should also encourage the butchery of the bullfight? Is there not hypocrisy here? Should not the infallibility of silence in the face of cruelty be challenged?

Two incredible statements about the bullfight stand out: The first one is by a government official written in 1879. He accuses society of being "effeminate" to the point that "a man who is unable without shaking or trembling to look at the torn intestines of a horse, will end up horrified at the agony of a lamb or the convulsions of a dying chicken and this is not worthy of the king of creation at whose service God has placed nature."

The second is from a publisher of a bullfighting magazine which claims to express the philosophy of the people who patronize the "industry". He says "the bull, in thc sexual connotation, takes on the feminine form and the man vanquishes the female by raping and plunging when the matador vanquishes the bull, he has taken the bull’s virginity from it and has dominated the animal."

Both of these statements reveal a correlation between the oppression of animals and the oppression of women that has been thoroughly ignored. How so many people have failed to recognise this is beyond comprehension. Isn’t it obvious that the patriarchial attitude of God-given control over creation embodies a continuum that begins with the earth and the animals and is then extended to include people or "inferior" social or racial standing and in the end women? Are we not aware that history has invariably shown that the line of patriarchal control fluctuates according to the degree of resistance the patriarchs find in opposition to their role as self-appointed redpresentatives of divinity? If no-one had stood up to these self appointed patriarchs, slaves, Native Americans, blacks, Jewish people, women, children and many others would be to this day abused as animals. Anything closer to nature than the patriarchs themselves - which is everything except their creations — is by definition at their disposition as representatives of God in the earth. If one is to exert "God-Given" power one must learn to desensitise oneself, to be unwoman-like, to be anything but "effeminate" which is, after all, inferior and unworthy of the "King of Creation" the male human. The sickness of the bullfight begins with the beating, abusing and forced-breeding of the female from which is born the quintessential victim for the drunk-with-power, tough and macho, human male. This is a toughness achieved by becoming insensitive, so insensitive in fact, that man can go on inflicting cowardly suffering on others without feeling anything. This is the essence of oppression, violence and war. Insensitivity allows one to torture a bull, to watch in cold blood as an old horse's intestines spill out on the sand, to whip your slaves, to beat and rape "your" women and to abuse your children. At the top of the patriarchal hierarchy you find the biggest cowards in the earth.

I had planned to visit Spain in '92, but the more l think about it, the clearer it becomes that until it stands up for what is right, I feel dirty there. '92 is supposed to symbolise Spain's new opening to the world. It's supposed to be an invitation to share the greatness of those whose brave spirits led them into the explorations that gave humanity new horizons five hundred years ago and to share the greatness of those who, after years of repression are today breaking frontiers by offering their sensitivity and creativity to the rest of the world. Their beauty and efforts are tainted by a foul smell of blood and festering wounds. I refuse to share in the baseness of the bullfight and I refuse to accept that this butchery represents the nobility of Spanish spirit. I have seen the Spanish spirit be dignified, warm and caring, loving humanity as intensely as anyone ever has. The bullfight however, makes me ashamed of being human. Neither the bullfight, nor South Africa’s apartheid, nor the abuse of women and children, nor slavery, nor the Holocaust, are internal national crimes with no bearing on anyone outside the countries where they happen. These are crimes against human dignity and all of us are responsible for bringing them to an end. I will boycott Spain in '92 and until I hear the church speak up loud and clear against such cruelty I will also question and challenge the leadership of the Vatican.