As blood runs in sand, humanity oozes away

Bullfight: The sport romanticized by Hemingway is viewed anew as a cruel and cowardly spectacle.

February 06, 2000|By John Michel

HEMINGWAY got soft romantic twinges about it; travel brochures paint a portrait of pomp and gallantry. But then there is the hard, oily reality. What I found when I put myself right into the guts of it is that there is more of Steven King than of Hemingway; more of gallows than gallantry and more pompousness than pomp.

They said I should have known what to expect; I mean, everyone knows what happens at bullfights -- if it's not your cup of tea, just don't go. But it's kind of like experiences in general, like a cystoscopy, for instance: They can describe it all they want, but you really don't have a clue, unless you're on the wrong end of the scope.

It was all pretty and anticipatory at first. The people in the stands around me looked nice enough, kind of like the folks you'd see in the movie "State Fair" or across the table at Thanksgiving.

Then there were the prancing proud horses and the even more-prancing and prouder fellows in festive peacock-like outfits. Banners were unfurling, trumpets were fluttering. I thought I was really beginning to become one with the spirit of this meeting of the ultimate man and the ultimate animal.

And how impressive were the fellows in the ring! Solemn, with the ramrod of dignity stuck up their backs. They looked for all the world as if they were about to reach down deep into the pockets of their peacock suits and do something terribly ennobling.

Excitement bloomed when they released this magnificent bull. He taught them how to prance!

But then the trumpets fizzled, it got ugly, and the only "noble" thing about this event was the bull.

As I got ready for the Hemingway-romance and the travel brochure-bravado, an amazing transmutation occurred. These dignified fellows in the ring turned into petulant schoolchildren who began taunting this bull; I swear to God, one guy actually stuck his tongue out at him.

A similar kind of possession took hold of the spectators around me who all began looking like those characterizations of crazy Caligula in the old Hollywood Roman epic films. "State Fair" turned into crumbling fallen Rome.

I looked through my travel brochure and there was absolutely no mention of anything like this. All the people in their togas and tight pants seemed to view this bull as the embodiment of evil.

Then the obnoxious schoolchildren put their tongues back in and started some serious torturing.

If your idea of enjoyment is watching old newsreels of the Hindenberg in flames or slowing down to look for blood and body parts as you pass by traffic accidents, then you would absolutely salivate at what happened from that point on.

The bull was naturally confused and seriously distracted by the screaming Caligulas. The brave fellows counted on this, and their courage was further bolstered by whatever drugs they had pumped into the bull before "inviting" him to the party. So, because apparently any creature who pranced so much better could not be allowed to live, they felt obliged to slaughter it -- ceremoniously and within the confines of ritual, mind you.

What they did was to start sticking the creature from atop their horses with various sharp objects -- you know, things you might find lying around the Marquis de Sade's workshop. Funny thing, though, they made a point of dulling the bull's horns by wrapping them neatly in a nice cottony fabric. Kind of like tying Mike Tyson's hands behind his back while you slap at him. I suppose the "brave" part means you hope he doesn't break the ropes.

The bull didn't break the ropes, and the children of de Sade kept sticking him until blood got all over the road. (Blood in sand is particularly revolting -- trust me.) They were careful not to get anything visceral on their outfits, though. (Those cleaning bills just bust the budget, but that's made up for by the fact that they have one less bull to feed).

At this point, I shook myself out of the state of shock I had entered and left before the end. I surmised from the cheers I heard behind me blocks away from the stadium that the end did come.

Purists (or impurists, depending on how you feel about it) will say I just don't get it, and they are correct. They also have the right to their "more informed" opinion.

But if you ever feel that you've evolved to too high a height from the primordial slime and want to descend a rung or two on the old evolutionary ladder, just take in a bullfight. It's not a burning blimp, but you'll get to see humanity disintegrating right before your eyes.

John Michel lives in Chestnut Hill, Pa. After his vacation, he became a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, Va., This commentary was prepared for Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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