The Unmaking of an American Aficionado, Part 2

Opinion January 16, 2013 0 Comments

by Hugh Gilmore

In last week’s Part 1 of this series, I described my reasons for wanting to write a novel centered around Escamillo, the “toreador” from Georges Bizet’s “Carmen.” To do so, I’d have to begin an intensive study of bullfighting as background research for my story.

It is one thing, however, to research the nature of bullfighting just to create a literary character who plays the role of a matador. And it is quite another to dig deeply into a cultural enterprise that involves the ritualistic slaying of a very large and bred-to-be-ferocious animal for the purpose of entertainment.

As an outsider, bullfighting always struck me as cruel, barbaric and uncivilized. The bloody, slow death of the animal was a given. There was no avoiding this aspect of bullfighting. How could I go ahead and just be a “researcher” in the face of all that “blood and sand”?

Well, being a North American, I simply said: It’s none of my business. Bullfighting is an integral part of another culture. They have their reasons, their justifications. They have their rituals, their tools, their banners, their music, their costumes, their specialized language, their stadia, their fans, their press, their theories, their histories and – most of all – their traditions. If I want to learn about them, swell. If I don’t, that’s my choice too. Just don’t stick my nose into other people’s business.

When one first starts reading the bullfighting literature and starts acquiring a bit of its vocabulary, a certain self-pride enters the situation. In the same way that Europeans admire, even emulate, certain American customs, some Americans, usually of the sophisticated classes, enjoy adopting foreign tastes.

The occasional use of a spoken phrase in British English, or French, or Spanish adds a certain élan to one’s persona. So too, does acquiring a deeper-than-ordinary knowledge of some aspect of foreign culture. Cooking Italian style. Playing flamenco guitar. Knowing Japanese tea ceremonies. Smoking from a hookah.

After a while, this acquired knowledge often becomes more than status-driven The deeper one’s knowledge extends, the more sympathy one develops for the other culture. And admiration for the “other’s” ability to see beauty or derive aesthetic pleasure from something overlooked by our American culture.

And so, because I was willing to be educated, to keep an open mind, to learn something that would expand my appreciation for the world, I read as much as I could about bullfighting. I chose to ignore the sight of bulls writhing or enraged by pain, I chose not to see the animals’ furiously panting ribs, the blood falling from their gaping mouths.

I tried to derive satisfaction from seeing these large animals fall to their knees and collapse on their sides. I tried not to understand the reality of the men who would silently and efficiently slip up to stab the prone bulls’ necks and bring their quietus. Bullfighting’s defenders said that what I had just seen was a marvelous ritual that displayed man’s courage in the face of death.

As soon as notions of mysticism are brought in like this, one is all too prone to accept the mystical and ignore the visible reality of what he sees. Especially when one is already stretching his own beliefs in order to be sympathetic. So, in an almost childlike manner, I set aside my own belief system in order to see this bullfighting phenomenon as its aficionados saw it.

Let’s face it: There are individuals who walk on a hillside and see a beautiful deer or goat or elk or bear and immediately feel their hearts flutter with regret that they did not bring a rifle along. The beauty of the animal and the gorgeousness of the setting just seem to go hand in hand with the notion of getting off a perfect shot that brings the beast down. I am not speaking of sustenance hunters here, but of people who want to taste victory, persons who derive deep and lasting satisfaction from such a life-and-death encounter with a wild animal.

And there are men and women who in the same situation, regret that they do not have their cameras with them. And others still, who want to stand motionless, or sit on a rock, and watch silently for as long as they can. These different kinds of people will never understand one another through the powers of persuasion and attempted conversion. Each of them tries to pass laws that would suppress the “walk in the woods” pleasures of the others. This conflict will go on for a long time.

So, for a few years, I plunged on into the world of tauromachy, the study of bull culture. The subject was quite pleasurable to learn about. For one thing, there’s a lot of colorful pageantry. Part of my fervor was based on the fact that I love learning about the “backstage” business of any occupation or enterprise. I’ve read memoirs by locksmiths and astronauts, burglars and warriors, sailors and magicians. Now I was reading about corridas and matadors. It’s a very exciting business.

But, as the saying goes, there are two things one should not observe closely: sausage-making and politics. To that I would add bullfighting.

To be continued.

Note: Our columnist, Hugh Gilmore, is a member of Club Torino of London and of The American Association of Taurine Bibliophiles. Just this week he has published his new adventure/romance novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” in Kindle format. The print version is due out in a few weeks.

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