4 Oct, 2011 @ 09:22
3 mins read

Hemingway and me

ASK an American what they think when they hear the word “Spain,” and they would likely say: Bullfighting, flamenco and Penelope Cruz. Bullfighting is etched into the psyche of the English speaking world. It’s daring, wild, it’s got panache. And since Ernest Hemingway was required high school reading, bullfighting also has a poetic sheen.

In Death in the Afternoon Hemingway wrote:”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.”

So with these images in mind, and a ticket from my roommate’s grandfather in my hand, I prepared for my first bullfight.

Granted, this was small town bullfighting, not some elaborate bullring like in Madrid or Sevilla.  Small town bullfighting is the equivalent of American rodeo circuits in one-stoplight towns in Wyoming. It ain’t pretty.

Even so, I arrived at the bullfighting ring, erected just that afternoon, nervous and excited. I heard the crowd inside as the horse show – sort of an opening act — had already begun.

My roommate had remembered to bring food and drinks; I later found out bullfighting is a long ordeal for all involved.  I watched as the horses were led back out.  A hush fell over the crowd as a gate with a chute opened. Two men leaned over the railing of the chute.  They began banging on the sides. A bull careened through with a low rumble, emerge blindly, charging at nothing.  It stopped and snorted, confused.

The crowd let out a cheer as the matador team walked into the ring with their pink and yellow capes in hand.  Normally, a matador has six assistants — two picadores (“lancers”), three banderilleros(“flagmen”), and a mozo de espada (“sword servant”).

A bullfight goes in stages. The first stage is when the matador seems to be flirting with the bull, egging it on. Some of the banderilleros wave capes in its face to see how it charges. It is during this time that the matador or picadores take small knives or lances and stab the bull in the back of the neck. In the first round of bullfighting I saw, a picador on a heavily padded horse came into the arena. As the bull charged the horse, he stabbed the bull in the back of the neck.

The dance with death had begun. But that’s as poetic as I’ll get. Being close enough to hear the knives as they jammed them into the bull’s neck and smell the mass of humanity pressed close into this dusty ring didn’t do much for me. Still, I was mesmerized by what was happening, the way rubberneckers are with car wrecks and public executions.

Stage two is full of more stabbings, with knives that have festive colored flags attached to them. As the bull gets more sticks of colored paper hanging off of him, the closer to the end he gets. The old men in the crowd shout encouragement or advice on how they would have done it. Many of them have old fashioned wineskin holders that they sip from during the fight. My roommate passes me some food and a cup of coffee from her thermos. A little boy in front of me is dressed in a matador-in-training outfit complete with a pageboy hat and stockings. Men walk through the rows selling sunflower seeds, candy, and variations of chips.

The real show is the very end. It’s just bullfighter and bull — staring each other down, circling around the ring, each one treading lightly in the dust and sand. A trumpeter plays a somber series of notes to signal the crowd it’s the final countdown.

The matador reentered the bull ring with a red cape and sword. He used his cape to attract the bull in a series of charges and passes. The red color of the cape is just tradition, and doesn’t make the bull angrier. Bulls are colorblind and are attracted to the movement of the cape.

Finally, the matador takes the sword and brings it down into the back of the bull’s neck. It’s supposed to be a clean and swift stab, and if it isn’t it costs the matador points and elicits jeers from the crowd. This one is done correctly.

The bull staggered to its front legs, coughing up a steady stream of blood. The crowd screamed its approval. After a bull is killed, if the matador has had a stellar performance he is rewarded with one or two of the bull’s ears, and if he’s especially good, the tail as well. On this day, the matador got one ear.

I watched the women waving their white handkerchiefs at the matador. I wanted to feel poetic and alive after this cultural experience. The matador was handsome, with windswept features and swagger. I wanted to strut through the streets like him. Roses fall to the dust, and I watched him kiss some of the shawls and throw them back to the women in the seats. I tried to channel their emotion.  The bull is dragged out by the horses, unceremoniously, as the cheering continues.

But all I could think was: Hemingway was full of it.


  1. Brittany, I guess you are aware that “Death in the Afternoon” was published in 1932. Calling Hemingway full of it because he didn’t live in your small world seems a bit immature.

    “As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.”
    Ernest Hemingway

  2. The article is a mediocre description of a tired,outdated, sleazy,brutal activity which sounds as though it’s still in the Dark Ages, by a person who displays a jaded callousness to the appalling suffering of animals which is quite disturbing.

  3. Bullfighting: It’s not ART; its not CULTURE; its not SPORT; its “TORTURE” (ask the MAJORITY of the people in the bullfighting countries of Spain; Portugal; France; Mexico; Colombia; Ecuador; Guatemala; Peru and Venezuela KNOW, and are working on, and passing BANS and ABOLITION of bullfights).

    Bullfighting: The most “indefensible and abhorrent” type of animal abuse that IS and always WILL BE; a “TRADITION of CRUELTY.”

    Bullfighting is not a fight at all, but a systematic torture-killing that pits a gang of armed thugs wielding razor-sharp barbed spikes, spears, swords and daggers (these weapons are designed to inflict intense pain and cause massive blood loss to weaken the animal) against a lone, terrified; confused; “fatally” disabled and wounded animal.

    It’s a sickening economic industry based on HORRIFYING victimization; sadistic abuse; extreme cruelty and mutilation and torture of bulls (and horses) during the cruel exhibitions of bullfights (which are barbaric “blood” fiestas): Close-up Horror of Bullfighting (Graphic) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvwQ4Dmlur8

    Handlers weaken and cripple the bull for days before the bullfight. They starve him; give him laxatives and deny him water, or they put massive doses of sulphates (epsom salts) in his water to induce severe diarrhea, intestinal pain and subsequent lack of coordination in the ring. He is beaten with heavy sandbags on his back and kidneys. He is wedged into a tiny corral and drugged to make him docile. Up to four inches of horn is hacked off with a saw down to the tender quick to interfere with his ability to navigate; the mutilated stump rounded off with a rasp and smeared with black grease; his hooves are burned with turpentine.

    They blind him with vaseline and salt rubbed into his eyes and drug him; they stuff his ears so that he cannot hear; they stuff his nostrils so that he cannot breath. Just before he enters the ring he is harpooned/stabbed in the back with a steel “breeder’s mark.” In the ring, they drive razor-sharp lances and harpoons into his back and neck muscles so he can’t lift his head. By the time the matador appears, the bull is weak from blood loss and dizzy from being chased in circles.

    The horses used in bullfights are old and drugged. Wet newspaper is stuffed in their ears so that they will not hear the approaching bull and run away; their vocal cords are cut so the audience will not hear their cries. They wear long blankets to hide their entrails, which spill out when they are gored and disemboweled by the tortured; agonizing bull (who has been deceived into thinking that the horse is causing his pain, instead of the “wicked human” riding the horse).

    It’s no fun to see an innocent, crazed animal tortured before a screaming crowd of people, who should be hanging their heads in shame. Even if you leave after 15 to 20 minutes, the damage has been done – your money has gone to support this hellish, satanic business, which “decent” people are working to “end.”

    The continuation of bullfighting depends on government subsidies and to an even GREATER EXTENT; the IGNORANT “TOURIST” industry.

    Don’t be an ACCOMPLICE to this “SAVAGERY” by supporting it with your “tourist dollars.”

    Bullfighting is a “senseless, degrading” spectacle that has no place in a “civilized” society.

    Please help these “suffering” animals – STAY AWAY FROM BULLFIGHTS; SPEAK OUT AGAINST THEM with the TRUTH and DEMAND that they be “ABOLISHED.”

    Michel Michaeljohn (An American of Spanish descent).

  4. Bullfighting is one of the most heinous acts of animal abuse existing in the world today. The suffering caused is beyond barbaric….for anyone to refer to this outdated animal torture as art or poetry is completely ludicrous…..this horror should have been consigned to the history books long ago!

  5. 70% of the Spanish population are against bullfighting, but we all know that nowadays, everything is moved by money, and that 30% that like bullfighting (or maybe they don’t, they just make money with it) are the ones that have the money, and consequently, the power.
    Here in Catalonia, we have finally ended with this brutality that did not represent most of us, television and other Spanish ways of communication, say that Catalonia ended with this because we don’t want to feel Spanish, when the truth is that the main reason why we signed to stop this was because it was cruel and we don’t like hurting animals, maybe some people claims that they do it because they don’t want to feel Spanish in anything, but that does not represent the whole community.
    So, how are we supposed to deal now with the rest of the country to ask them to stop this “tradition” when the rest of the country thinks we don’t care about bulls, only about independence? These kind of things are the ones that make me be ashamed of going to another country and say that I’m Spanish, with these mentalities and these stupid traditions, we look as if we were still like 50 years ago.

  6. This(the article) is what the Americans think? Bullfighting is not a art dear folk. Here, in Europe, we’ve had gladiators too. So, was it just a history?.
    It’s in the past. As this bullfighting will be “the past”…
    I hope to see more intellectual tourists here!

  7. Keep spreading the word against bullfighting everyone! the funniest thing is that these ‘matadors’ ..great sounding name (sounds heroic).. look camper than Julian Clary would ever dare to appear in their tight fitting embroidered outfits, then in an act of cowardice kill a bull that’s nearly dead anyway! BRAVO! BRAVO! OLÉ! OLÉ!.. (It’s NOT man v bull at all). Fancy an actual fight? see you outside in the car park afterwards! ha ha

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