Bullfighting: Art vs Moral Dilemma

On the 25th of February 1906, the Spanish bullfighter Domingo Ortega was born in Borox, Toledo, Spain. His career as a bullfighter had been prompted by a spectacular incident, which took place in the summer of 1928 during a novillada – a bullfight of young bulls. Ortega, witnessing the bullfighter being dangerously injured, jumped into the ring and took over his place, killing the bull after several passes. This was the starting point to his career as one of Spain’s most admired matadors. His artistry and daring influenced most of his followers. The original element of his style, described in his numerous publications, was to move into the bull’s path and lead it past the body in an arc, rather than in a straight line. Ortega continued to fight for over 20 years until his retirement in 1954. He died in 1988 in Madrid.

71X0q3Fz7NL._SL1360_While most modern sources praise Ortega’s style and courage, Ernest Hemingway criticised him in Death in the Afternoon (1932). Hemingway perceived Ortega more as an artificially pumped-up publicity phenomenon, than the matador whose legend matched his skill: “I arrived in Spain immediately after the revolution and found him ranking with politics as a café topic. He had not yet fought in Madrid but every night the Madrid papers published notices of his triumphs in the provinces. Dominguin was spending much money on his publicity and Ortega cut ears and tails each night in all the evening papers.” Then Hemingway goes on to describing one of Ortega’s fights he had witnessed: “That day Ortega showed coolness and an ability to move the cape slowly and well, holding it low, provided the bull did the commanding. He showed an ability to cut the-handed pass with the muleta which was very effective in punishing and he made a good one-handed pass with his right. With the sword he killed quickly and trickily profiling with great style and then not keeping the promise of his very arrogant way of preparing to kill when he actually made the trip in. All the rest of him was ignorance, awkwardness, inability to use his left hand, conceit, and attitudes. He had, very obviously, been reading and believing his own newspaper propaganda.”

Death in the Afternoon is an absolutely fascinating non-fiction book on the ceremony and traditions of Spanish bullfighting. The author contemplates on the nature of fear and courage, life and death, animal versus human aspect, etc., trying to understand and defend the true meaning of the spectacle, which in the eyes of many is seen as a barbarian act of cruelty. To him bullfighting is an almost transcendental experience and the only chance to face the concept of death in its most bare form.             

“The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. It has none of the complications of death by disease, or so-called natural death, or the death of a friend or some one you have loved or have hated, but it is death nevertheless, one of the subjects that a man may write of. I had read many books in which, when the author tried to convey it, he only produced a blur, and I decided that this was because either the author had never seen it clearly or at the moment of it, he had physically or mentally shut his eyes, as one might do if he saw a child that he could not possibly reach or aid, about 419F82EEDNLto be struck by train. In such a case I suppose he would probably be justified in shutting his eyes as the mere fact of the child being about to be struck by the train was all that he could convey, the actual striking would be an anti-climax, so that the moment before striking might be as far as he could represent. But in the case of an execution by a firing squad, or a hanging, this is not true, and if these very simple things were to be made permanent, as, say, Goya tried to make them in Los Desastros de la Guerra, it could not be done with any shutting of the eyes.”

Hemingway’s love of bullfighting, despite many initial doubts, struck him almost immediately:

“So I went to Spain to see bullfights and to try to write about them for myself. I thought they would be simple and barbarous and cruel and that I would not like them, but that I would see certain definite action which would give me the feeling of life and death that I was working for. I found the definite action; but the bullfight was so far from simple and I liked it so much that it was much too complicated for my then equipment for writing to deal with…”

And then he explains the moral dilemma behind bullfighting:

“So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on and have a feeling of life and death and mortality and immortality, and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.”

In the end, Hemingway sees bullfighting not as a sport or even ritual but pure art. He says:

“Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”

Film Credit: josemariamorente