A Referendum on Spanish culture itself: Podemos on Bullfighting

Yesterday Google opened its page with an image from the Cave of Altamira, the oldest known art, painted on walls deep underground in Cantabria, northern Spain. (I have written about them in more detail in my chapter on the history of the region in the recent book The Bulls Of Pamplona.)

This is the 150th anniversary of the rediscovery of those caves, suitably a wandering hunter, and the institute which manages them has just launched a new exhibition to better educate the people of today about a range of artworks which began 36,000 years ago.

The subject of this art, the first Art – like the subject of the life of its rediscoverer – is the hunt, and Man’s first confrontation with those intertwined concepts of Nature and Death and how we inflict the latter upon the former in order to sustain ourselves against both.

Man kills to live, and thus lives in the shadow of Death, his own and that of others. Our first religious instincts come from here, thus the ritualistic nature of the hunting scenes upon the walls.

The first hunters – like all good hunters today – are humble and venerate the animals they kill, even as they defy their attempts to do the same to us. There is contradiction there, and as there always is when humans encounter contradiction, there is a ritual manner to quieten the troubling questions raised.

So it is an irony that on the same day we celebrate thirty-six millenia of art, a Spanish party of the political extreme, Podemos – the Left in this case – is offering to use that bane of modern populist politics, the referendum, to censor it. In particular one of its more arcane and archaic instantiations, and the one that is most singularly Spanish, bullfighting.

As I have written in these pages before, bullfighting is an English word, not a Spanish one, but is co-opted from its original use as an alternative to bull-baiting, i.e. setting dogs on a tethered animal. La corrida de toros actually translates as ‘the coursing of bulls’ – coursing being to hunt at a run – showing the historic origins of that which is now almost pure art and ritual, an aestheticized rite that ends in a sacrifice.

The art of the matador José Tomás, regarded by many as not only the most artistic torero alive today, but in history. This photo was taken during a historic corrida in Nîmes, France, in 2012 by Carlos Cazalis, and forms part of his book Sangre de Reyes, ‘Blood of Kings’

(N.B. All bullrings are EU-registered slaughterhouses, their products ending in the food-chain, as with all the world’s 1.3 billion cattle)

However, rather than recite my own views once again, or even to give the excellent public riposte of Victorino Martín in the newspaper El Mundo, himself a famed bull-breeder and president of la Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘the Foundation of the Fighting Bull’, which includes the perfectly apposite comparison:

One remembers all too well the actions of the Taliban upon the Buddhas of Bamiyan, destroyed because for failure to fit into their moral canon. Pablo Iglesias [leader of Podemos] considers the bulls morally wrong, so he proposes a referendum to end them.


It was precisely to avoid these things that UNESCO approved conventions such as the Cultural Diversity of 2001 and of which Spain is a party, which seeks to protect all cultural expressions against fundamentalisms…and if Podemos is tempted to say that “is that bullfighting is not culture”, UNESCO is already ahead of them, explaining that the only limit when considering when a culture is inadmissible are human rights and fundamental freedoms. I repeat, human rights …

I offer instead the words of someone from the other side of the debate, an author who defines himself as both of the Left and as anti-bullfighting, but who  – unlike the narrower political minds of Podemos – took up the Foundation on its offer to at least witness what he stood against. His fascinating essay on his reactions is translated.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison


Afternoon of Bulls

Sergio del Molino

Sergio del Molino – born Madrid,1979 – is a Spanish author and journalist best known for his book, La hora violeta (Mondadori, 2013, published in English as The Violet Hour, Hispabooks, 2016), in which he tells the story of the illness and death of his son Pablo. It won the 2013 Premio El Ojo Crítico de Narrativa from Spanish National Radio, and the 35thPremio Tigre Juan.

CTXT  – Context Magazine – was founded by fourteen journalists from a variety of newspapers in Europe, including El País, El Mundo, and La Repubblica. It was created to be a platform for journalists to write with full independence, without serving corporate, political or editorial interests. Its honorary president is the philosopher Noam Chomsky.

I do not bring fresh meat to the market. I should have written this in May when it happened but I was on the verge of collapse and I could not find the tone or the form to set down in words what I had experienced. Maybe this does not matter, the feelings I had were not so transient that they required an immediate outlet, but it is pointing out given the new puritanism that only that which is fresh is ‘News’.

Chapu Apaolaza, a journalist who specialises in bullfighting – and a member of the Fundación del Toro de Lidia, ‘Foundation of the Fighting Bull’ – invited me to watch a bullfight with him in the feria of San Isidro from the callejón (the bullfighters’ covered ‘alleyway‘ around the ring) in the main bullring of Madrid, Las Ventas.

“It is not the same as seeing it from the stands”, he said, “from there it is an experience which will affect you far, far more.”

I told him that I had not been to a bullfight in my life and that I consider myself an anti-taurino, an ‘anti-bullfighting person’, in the sense that being “anti-something” is a way of defining oneself.

Both of these things were fine by Chapu. He seemed almost delighted with the idea of ​​bringing a virgin soul to see the bulls for the first time. He compared it to taking someone to see the ocean for the first time: he was looking forward to witnessing my reaction.

“We invite you to write whatever you want”, he said, “or to write nothing at all, but I think it’s worth knowing something of this world.”

By the very act of accepting Chapu’s invitation I caused an argument with my mother. She was furious with me. “I don’t understand,” she said, “where does this sick curiosity come from? What the hell are you looking for?”

Chiming in with my mother’s words were a host of people on Twitter and Facebook, who called me a criminal and a murderer when I posted a photo of the gates of the bullring. And I had not even walked in yet.

My sensations, my emotions, during the bullfight were, of course, affected by my host. Chapu Apaolaza is a charming man: elegant, cordial, intelligent and cultured. A man with whom it is easy to agree. He was a television commentator on bullfighting and within that role had a reputation as something of an eccentric among the serious aficionados, who cannot fathom, for example, why he dedicates himself to inviting people like me to the bullring who then go on to criticise bullfighting.

Attending a bullfight with any other person would have made it so much more disagreeable and, no doubt, more in tune with what my mother expected of me (who hoped that I would leave horrified, nauseous and screaming “butchers” at the applauding masses in the stands).

Chapu is also responsible for that fact that hours later, having a glass of wine at a nearby bar, I had no choice but to respond: yes, I liked it.

I felt very strange saying it. I resisted saying it. I thought that the disgust, the animal smell, the brutality of the rite and the closeness to blood and death would make it unbearable for me, and I did not rule out having to leave there after ten minutes, incapable of watching more. However, I not only ‘endured’ the entire bullfight, but found myself fascinated. And this was not even a good bullfight. This was what Chapu told me, that they were mediocre displays of toreo, of bullfighting, but what did it matter, if I did not understand anything, how I could not tell if they did it well or badly? I barely understood the ritual significance of each scene. I only knew that I had been affected greatly and in a good way. To perceive and portray it otherwise would have been hypocritical. In the eyes of my mother, this feeling made some kind of psychopath, someone no less despicable than a proselytizer for Nazism.

How can I tell her this, I thought, knowing that she would not understand me, but I could not lie to her and tell her that I had been disgusted at this animal torture show because it simply was not true: I knew that I had attended something beautiful.

How did this happen? How can I find beauty – a beauty in some primary form and radically different from the beauty that Art inspires in me – in a spectacle that undermines my sensibility, that represents everything I detest in my country, which presents and promotes scenes of a barbarity which I abominate?

When I give a talk or a reading from my books, and, in the subsequent Q&A session, someone in the audience begins by apologising because he has not read my book, I usually respond: “Good, so you will have a strong opinion on it, one that has not been spoiled by actually reading it.” It’s a joke but I mean it: the most effective and definitive way to oppose something is to know nothing about it. It is very difficult to maintain a firm conviction about anything once you have seen it up close. In the language of bullfighting – which has contributed so many colloquial expressions to the Spanish language, the majority of which do not even sound ‘taurine’ – this is called watching the bulls from behind the fence (that is what I did, literally).

I have not fallen off the wagon, I am not a convert nor am I going to buy a season ticket for next year. I may never see a bullfight again, but I’m very glad that Chapu invited me to witness his world. I feel privileged to have seen something very rare that threatens, quite seriously, the spirit of these times. Something that tests not only my sensibility, but that of our entire society.

This spectacle and its rites pose very uncomfortable dilemmas that cannot be resolved from some ethical ivory tower. It is very easy to point out the obvious: that there is an animal that suffers and dies to provide an aesthetic pleasure. This cannot be denied. No decent and sincere aficionado should deny it. However, it is no less true that the audience that attends the corridas is not composed of sadistic psychopaths hungry for morbidity and the shedding of blood. It is not the suffering of the animal that brings them to the bullring – at least, it is not in the case of aficionadas like Chapu – but the symbolic power of the ritual, the representation of a tragedy where everything that happens is true. Because that is a bullfight: the dramatization of a struggle. However, this is a theatre where everything is real, which ends with the actual death of the bull and in which the bullfighter is in a very real danger of dying himself. These are not actors portraying Medea. The audience knows that there is no pretence here, that at the end of the play their masks will not fall.

This is atavistic, brutal, incomprehensible and, above all, unnecessary. Of course it is, but after seeing it I cannot sustain the caricature of the bullfighting aficionado as an abominable savage. On the contrary: from his point of view, the abominable savage is me. I am the hypocrite who is horrified by the death of the bull in the ring but enjoys a steak. A hypocrite who is ashamed of his predatory nature and who eats so many animals without ever seeing how they are killed. A hypocrite who takes advantage of the antiseptic industrialization of the slaughterhouses that remain on the outskirts of our cities and that buys the corpses of the animals vacuum-packed and with a bar code so as not to have to think that this piece of meat was once a being that lived and felt and drew breath. For many aficionados, bulls represent the confrontation with human nature and its relationship with the animals that it devours. They put upon the stage a lost culture, the one that is preserved in paint and pigment on the walls of the prehistoric caves of Altamira.

In a world without guilt, without responsibility, where everything is prepared by strange, anonymous and distant hands, the bulls remind us that human beings are predators and that the only worthy and courageous way to face our condition is to look in the eyes of our prey before killing it. Hypocritical and vile, according to this perspective, is the person who closes their eyes and pretends the farms and the slaughterhouses do not exist.

I do not share this vision, but I understand it and, above all, I understand that it fascinates many people. Some of my most sensitive and educated friends, whose intelligence and personality I admire, are bullfighting aficionados and deeply feel in some way, and to varying degrees, this vision. Others believe, like me, that it is an anachronism that has no place in today’s world and will inevitably disappear, but they can take on board and withstand its contradiction. Rationally it disgusts them; emotionally it fascinates them. And I understand it: there is no other cultural expression in the West that obliges those present to delve into their own contradictions and to dwell upon these paradoxes in such a radical way.

Only a fanatic or a fool can leave a bullfight the same as he entered. I defy the belief that it was only me who did. Chapu, like some virtuous Mephistopheles, knew where I was going and I knew what he was doing when he whispered in my ear his own perspective on what occurred before us. I knew he was taking me to place of discomfort. I knew that he was inoculating me with a dilemma that, even today, months later, my soul has been neither vaccinated against nor infected by.

Yes, I liked the corrida, I cannot say more than that. However, I still do not know what I really liked or if it excited some dark area of ​​my sensibility that perhaps was better left sleeping.

Sergio del Molino, authorial board member of Contexto.es, @sergiodelmolino

Fundación Toro de Lidia

The Fundación del Toro de Lidia was formed in 2016 by Carlos Núñez, breeder of fighting bulls and President of the Unión de Criadores de Toros de Lidia, ‘Union of the Breeders of Fighting Bulls’, itself founded in 1905.  The Toro de Lidia, also called the toro bravo, is the unique breed of Spanish cattle whose bulls make up these pages, just as the board and committee of the Foundation are comprised of the people who fill them, including bull-breeders such as its new President, Victorino Martín, and the great Juan Pedro Domecq and matadors such as Julián López, ‘El Juli,’ Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez and Alejandro Talavante.

The Foundation exists for the sole purpose of propagating and disseminating information about el mundo de los toros, ‘the world of the bulls’, and in doing so preserving the bulls themselves and the customs and traditions that have not only grown up around them but actually shaped and preserved this unique breed through history. Which is why support is needed, which is what amigos, ‘friends’, of the Foundation provide with their subscriptions. Friends receive newsletters as well as invitations to the ranches where the cattle are bred, and events where the breeders and matadors and taurine journalists discuss them and their world. Go to www.fundaciontorodelidia.org for more details.

At the bullfighting journalism awards 2018, given by the Spanish national newspaper ABC, in Seville in 2018: AFH, his girlfriend Klarina – a professional polo player and horsebreeder – and our friend Chapu, the spokesman of the Fundación Toro de Lidia.

3 thoughts on “A Referendum on Spanish culture itself: Podemos on Bullfighting

  1. Pingback: Álvaro Múnera: This photo is not what it seems… | The Last Arena

  2. Pingback: - Running of the Bulls®

  3. The trouble with bullfighting and why (especially) the Brits look so severely on it is that they understand it as “sport”. They think that as such, bullfighting should follow the strictly English rules, such as “fair play”. When I tell them that it is officially an “art form”, that it is not scored and reviewed, and that because it is not a sport, there is naturally no fair play, they snort on the explanation and keep asking where the art is. Even if you explain it to them, they don´t WANT to understand. The anti-bullfighting folks from France and Holland and much the same, but I noticed that most Brits (I specifically say it´s the Brits and not the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish) are ALSO likely to express an overly sadistic pleasure over an injury or death of a matador. Truth be told, it is almost exclusively the lower or middle classes. Maybe it is different with more educated or travelled Brits, and in fact, I expect it to be like that. But still, the vitriol that spills from the mouths of the Brits when I talk about bullfighting is sometimes quite overwhelming. And since most antitaurinos are usually from the Western countries, and the only information on bullfighting was by word of mouth or from Hemingway – who liked to twist reality sometimes – it is no wonder that this anti-bullfighting sentiment is gaining more and more votes. I like Spain, and bullfighting is one of the things which makes it different (even if it is in other countries as well). It is part of their culture. If all countries undergo globalization to the point that they lose their own culture and we can no longer see the difference between their way of life, then what´s the point of travelling? he whole thing with bullfighting and its possible ban is very frustrating and even depressing. Do you think it can be really banned forever? Also, I am sorry that I ranted so much about your country, I just had to say it. I won´t be mad if you hate me. I just had a really, really bad overal experience with the UK, especially post-Brexit (racism, xenophobia, and stuff). And sorry for my – probably bad – English.

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