21 May 2011
by Alastair Mabbott
Plagued by conflicting feelings about bullfighting, writer and actor Alexander Fiske-Harrison decided the only way to resolve the issue was to spend a year in Spain immersing himself in bullfighting culture and training alongside professionals, then taking to the ring himself. Before he could conclude the spectacle of the fight might not be worth the life of an innocent creature, he felt he had to understand bullfighting at the deepest level. With Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon a constantly looming presence, Fiske-Harrison comes across as the kind of devil-may-care Englishman who built an Empire. But is he a man out of time? Does he really have to get into the ring with one of these creatures to decide whether or not it’s barbaric? An informative and breathtaking volume of gonzo journalism.
I enclose this review of my book, Into The Arena (website here). It is overall an excellent review. However, the most interesting line in it is the question, referring to me, “Is he a man out of time?”
The criticism of bullfighting I hear in Europe and the US most frequently is that it is a throwback to a more barbaric time, that it is something which stands against the values of civilisation, humanity, progress, of modernity itself. This is, I believe, the most commonly and deeply held of all the arguments against the bullfight. I think that at some profound but unspoken level people know that the arguments about the welfare of the animal are a form of hypocritical special pleading when made by meat-eaters. The fictions about humane deaths to one side, cannibalism was always a greater taboo than murder: we don’t eat our dead, but we do theirs – that tells you exactly how highly we think of animals. Deep down I believe that people also know that if they not only enjoy the sickening, simulated, misogynistic violence of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, but also the real, distant, fatal violence of the BBC Natural History unit’s documentaries, then they don’t have a leg to stand on when they attack the virtue of the Spanish for wanting to watch a man perform a series of classically defined manoeuvres with a half ton animal at risk of his life before killing it with a sword.
However, there is an idea of civilisation which says that although we may like to eat our fellow creatures, they should be discretely killed out of sight and delivered to us with no identifiably mammalian characteristics – “sans eyes, sans teeth, sans everything.” We want to eat a cut of meat, not the flesh of a living thing. Also, we are fine with beasts killing each other in their thousands, and being filmed doing it, but only in the wild. It is notable how the welfare of the large predators kept in zoos is sacrificed by feeding them dead prey because it would be far too shocking to think of them actually hunting in those enclosures – perhaps the one thing guaranteed to keep them sane. No, in the name of humane progress it is better that they are left to mentally rot lest little Timmy should see nature take its course.
Now, I shall not take this idea of progress as sanitisation as far as the philosopher Martin Heidegger did in his 1954 essay, ‘The Question concerning Technology’, where he said:
Agriculture is now a mechanized food industry, in essence the same as the manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and death camps.
Because not only is that absurd (and grotesque coming from a man who joined the Nazi party with no apparent regrets at the time), but also wrong. This instinctive view of progress is far older than that. It can be found in the 8th century B.C. Book of Isaiah:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
This may seem like an admirable sentiment, but it certainly not one actually enjoyed by all those people who watch David Attenborough so smoothly narrate as lions eviscerate buffalo.
So, as a classical liberal, whose politics are central, and not progressive left as the social-democrats-dressed-as-liberals are today, I can only say this: let the Spanish take their pleasures where they will, and they will let you do the same. Attenborough may be a national treasure, but the Planet Earth television series is hardly the centuries old fiesta nacional.
So, it is not that I am a man out of time. It is that, in Hamlet’s words, the time is out of joint.