The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”
Literary Review, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

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The Bullfight and the Ban (and the Spanish Economy)

El Cid in Seville on Saturday evening
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

The ban on formal Spanish-style bullfights, corridas de toros, in the autonomous region of Catalonia came into de facto effect last night with the final corrida in Barcelona’s great bullring, La Monumental. (The ban, voted for in the regional parliament in July 2010 actually begins in 2012, but the “season” is now over”.) At the time, I was in transit back from another, very different Spanish city, Seville. (Apologies to Fiona Govan at the Daily Telegraph for not available for comment as a result.)

I had flown out to Seville to fight – non-fatally – on a ranch nearby for the cameras of NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams in the US, before going to watch a corrida in the true heartland of bullfighting in Spain, it’s oldest major bullring, La Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla (1749), then NBC was going to fly on to see 20,000 people pack into the century old Barcelona ring to watch Spain’s greatest matador, José Tomás, perform as the curtain fell on that part of the mundo taurino.

After NBC pulled out due to production problems, I took my girlfriend to the city I now regard as my second home after London and remained safely in the stands.

On Friday night, we saw a mediocre set of bulls of the second rank, fought with courage, determination and a lack of flair and technique by equally second-rank matadores. Given that we were sitting front row in seats generously donated by the bull-breeder Enrique Moreno de la Cova, it left a bad taste in my mouth. If the faena, the final part of each bull’s fight with the muleta or small red cape, has no art, then watching the picador drill his lance twice into each bull less than six feet in front of you can become the dominant visual memory. An evening out with that most garrulous of British aficionados, and the British Prince of Pamplona, Noel Chandler, did much to alleviate this.

Luckily, on Saturday night, we watched the Seville professional- as I think of him – El Cid fight his first bull with a blithe confidence which built up to a complicated brilliance using a sense of timing and grace of movement which I thought he had lost.

El Cid in Seville on Saturday evening
(Photo: Alexander Fiske-Harrison)

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Bullfighting is an Art: My Talk at the Oxford & Cambridge Club

I delivered the following talk on the bulls to a packed dining room at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, London yesterday. I wish I could remember the fascinating questions put afterwards, particularly the one by the philosopher Brendan McLaughlin bringing in schadenfreude and Nietzsche rather neatly. I sold copies of my book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight afterwards. It can be found at most British bookshops, or purchased at a 50% discount at Amazon by clicking here, or purchased and downloaded even more cheaply as an eBook by clicking here (it includes both the black & white and the colour photos).

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Like the undergraduate I would like to being this talk with a definition, this is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Cruel, adjective

From the Middle English, Cruel. Also in French, Cruel, Spanish Cruel, Italian, Crudele, All from the Latin crūdēl-em – morally rough, cruel, from same root as crude.

Primary definition: Of persons: Disposed to inflict suffering; indifferent to or taking pleasure in another’s pain or distress; destitute of kindness or compassion; merciless, pitiless, hard-hearted.

First given use: 1297

Now let me move onto bullfighting.

Now, I can – and have given – various relative defences of bullfighting to Anglo-Saxon audiences (in which loose tribe I count myself), which can be found in detail in Chapter 7 of the book [and with vivid pictures in the transcript of my talk at the Edinburgh Festival – AFH]. I won’t repeat here the horrors of the abattoir, the utterly unnecessary and environmentally damaging habit of eating meat for adult humans, the fact that one fifth of Spain’s wilderness, the dehesa, is owned and maintained by the breeders of the fighting bulls which would surely become more standard farmland were the activity banned, nor the fact that the British don’t seem quite so squeamish about the brutal and real death of animals contained in the output of the BBC Natural History Unit.

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Orson Welles on bullfighting as an art

Antonio Ordóñez, Matador of Ronda, and Orson Welles

Since bullfighting has moved from under the auspices of Spain’s Ministry of the Interior to that of the Ministry of Culture, I thought I would give the view of bullfighting as an artform by one of the greatest geniuses in the world of performing arts, Orson Welles, as recounted to the travel writer James Michener.

In case you have forgotten, Welles produced, directed, wrote and starred in Citizen Kane, usually considered the greatest film ever made, aged 25. And in case you didn’t know – i.e. you have not read my book, Into The Arena – seven years before that he briefly trained at as a bullfighter in Seville (as did I). His ashes are enterred at the ranch of his great friend, the matador Antonio Ordóñez (the house now belongs to his grandson, my friend the matador Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez.)

Here, he is describing the greatest of the Seville matadors at the time of the interview. The Seville matador today to whom Curro Romero is most similar today is Morante de la Puebla, whose photo I enclose at the end.

Alexander Fiske-Harrison

 

from Chapter VI: Sevilla

As to the bullfights, one evening I dined with Orson Welles, that scowling giant who in his youth had trained to be a matador, and he said in his rumbling voice, ‘What it comes down to is simple. Either you respect the integrity of the drama the bullring provides or you don’t. If you do respect it, you demand only the catharsis which it is uniquely constructed to give. And once you make this commitment you are no longer interested in the vaudeville of the ring. You don’t give a damn for fancy passes and men kneeling on their knees. There used to be this fraud who bit the tip of the bull’s horn. Very brave and very useless, because it played no part in the essential drama of man against bull. Such tricks cheapen the bull and therefore lessen the tragedy. What you are interested in is the art whereby a man using no tricks reduces a raging bull to his dimensions, and this means that the relationship between the two must always be maintained and even highlighted. The only way this can be achieved is with art.

Curro Romero, Matador of Seville, performs a ‘veronica’

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Am I a man out of time?

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?” Continue reading

The League of Cruel Sports

At the same time as the Sunday Telegraph joined the Sunday Times in listing my book Into The Arena as “essential summer reading”, and I was doing what you see in the photo below (more photos here), the animal rights lobby groups have broken their silence and ‘The League Against Cruel Sports’ has put up a review of my book which even contains a complimentary paragraph:

To his credit, Fiske-Harrison does at least acknowledge the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book does contain some interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.

Alexander Fiske Harrison, far right – red and white jacket – with Torrestrella bull in Pamplona, July 7th 2011 (Photo: REUTERS/Joseba Etxaburu)

Despite this, the rest of their review is riddled with errors from the first sentence:

Alexander Fiske-Harrison spent a year immersing himself in the bullfighting culture of Spain, with the seemingly noble aim of trying to gain a greater understanding of it.

I spent two years in Spain with the bulls. To the last: Continue reading

Is bullfighting an art?

Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar de Barrameda in 2009 by Nicolás Haro

In last weekend’s Sunday Times there is a review of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (which can be purchased at Amazon by clicking here) which, although largely positive, has two main criticisms.

The first, a minor one, is that the author is too self-regarding. I can’t really protest against this on pain of self-contradiction, and my only response is to say that the bullfight is, as I argue below, all about the emotion it inspires in both bullfighter and the audience. Since I play both of those roles at different points in the book, I have no choice but to describe who I am so the reader can try to triangulate what sort of emotions it might inspire in them.

His second, more serious criticism is two-pronged: he finds my apparent conversion from journalist to aficionado, and then beyond that to practioner, repellent, and this is made worse by the fact that he finds my justifications given in defence of bullfighting fatuous. The funny thing is, the review in the usually much more sentimental and emotional Daily Mail says that what makes my book readable is that I manage to maintain my “disgust “for the bullfight throughout the book.

So what is the truth? Am I in love with the bullfight, or in hate? The answer is both, at different times, and sometimes with such a quick turnaround between them that they seem to overlap. However, there is one thing I am not, and that is someone who would unprotestingly allow any law to be passed to ban it. The primary reason is because politically I am a liberal. The secondary one is that I believe bullfighting can be justified, even if the justification will not convince everyone all of the time (and that includes me.) The justification I phrased best in the Prospect magazine article which led to the book:

Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.

This is what has given me the title of this blog post. I believe that the bullfight does have an artistic quality, in fact, that can be an art in its own right. Now, I am aware that a large number of people, including the Sunday Times reviewer, think that even if it is an art-form, it could not possibly be justified on that basis. In fact, one journalist for the BBC – our national television network that has a state-enforced monopoly largely to guarantee the impartiality of its journalism – whom I approached on the subject, put his views even more strongly in an email to me.

Dear Xander,

Thanks so much for the invitation. I do have a passing interest in the subject – nothing quite cheers up my morning like reading in the paper that some matador or another has been gored to death by one of the bulls he was proposing to kill. It’s sort of like a man-bites-dog story, but with an added moral twist. But most of the time, I’m more interested in sports stories where both participants have volunteered to take part, and where one of the parties hasn’t been deliberately hobbled by minions sticking spears in them beforehand. Come to think of it, I guess you could see it as appreciating the rules of fair-play they instill at Eton.

Ole… Continue reading

An Englishman in Miura country

 

Author with a Miura (Photo: Pepe Sánchez)

As I train with my Maestro, to kill a single bull so I can write the most complete book on bullfighting possible (although abandoning my reputation for neutrality as a writer by getting into the arena) remarkable things happen. It is well known in the bullfighting world that no photography is allowed in the unique rectangular ‘plaza’ of Zahariche, the ranch where the world famous Miura bulls are bred, but that rule was broken for a demonstration for a select group of guests – including my friend Enrique Moreno de la Cova who breeds the equally historic Saltillo bulls. This piece of picture reportage by the photographer Pepe Sánchez can be found in the article ‘An Englishman in Zahariche’ on the website of Spain’s most popular bullfighting programme, Toros para Todos, ‘Bulls for All’, to see it click here. The first images are of Pepe Luis Vázquez, a notable former matador and son of an even greater one. Then comes my Maestro, Eduardo Dávila Miura, a recently retired matador and nephew of the house of Miura. Then the aficionado práctico Pepe González Barba. Followed by myself.

Here is what Hemingway had to say about Miura back in the 1930s.

“These bulls must be fought and killed as rapidly as possible with the minimum of exposure by the man, for they learn more rapidly than the fight ordinarily progresses and become exaggeratedly difficult to work with and kill.

Bulls of this sort are the old caste of fighting bulls raised by the sons of Don Eduardo Miura of Sevilla”

Two of the sons of those sons are below, and their daughter’s son as well…

Eduardo Miura, Author, Antonio Miura and Eduardo Dávila Miura

Animal Rights, Animal Welfare and the love of animals

The author and his first cat

The author and his first cat

Although I have long known that I was going to have to come into direct contact with issues of animal rights and animal welfare, I thought I would hold off for a little while. Then came March 4th. First, I landed in Portugal to read that the town of Viana do Castelo there has banned the bullfight as, “the defence of animal rights is not compatible with spectacles that torture and impose unjustifiable suffering.” Then I opened my mail to find an attack which accused me of “cynical opportunism” combined with a “deep-rooted hatred of living creatures.” A little while later, on the plane back to Spain, I read a passage by a writer whom I regard as something of a moral compass, in which he speaks of his hero Alyosha Karamozov and “all the love for ‘all creatures and all things’ which had concealed itself within his pure, young heart.” Finally, amongst the change I got from my taxi-driver home was a twenty Euro-cent piece with a red sticker on it saying “BULL-FIGHT IS BULLSHIT,” followed by a website address. When I looked it up I came across the website of the Comité Anti Stierenvechten (CAS), a powerful Dutch anti-bullfight lobbying organisation whose campaigns’ manager, Jordi Casamitjana, was interviewed with me on Al-Jazeera UK television and with whom I have exchanged thousands of words on the blog of Prospect magazine. So, all in all, I think I had best make an initial sortie on this subject at least to give people some idea where I am coming from. Continue reading