Margaret and Dick   


September 2013: Corrida!

Advisory:  This story contains graphic discussion and images of violence.

As we approached the city gates of Arles, we heard the sounds of a demonstration.  Anti-corrida.  Richard slipped through, but I was accosted head-on.  I understood their main reason for being there – the word torture on their banners was writ large – but the woman kept returning to "and we're the ones who pay for it."  Much of the fury was apparently about city money being used to support the bullfight.  I considered trying to explain the economic benefits of the throngs filling the bars / cafes / restaurants, and I considered mentioning that I have paid less for tickets to see the Rolling Stones, but I thought better of it.  Would I sign their anti-corrida petition?  But of course!  Rather than argue with a large angry woman I would rather choose most anything.  So I signed.  Or rather Michelle Rosen signed.  We pushed on into the crowded street filled with revelers.

We visited friends near Arles the next day and told them we had been to the corrida.  For awhile they tried to convince us that we had not been to a corrida but rather one of the many other bull games of the Camargue.  They were a little shocked to hear that we had been to a real Spanish corrida.  There followed much, er, discussion – old friends searching unsuccessfully to find common ground.  

I am actually pretty sympathetic to the anti-corrida cause, and five years ago I would have signed their petitions in all sincerity.  But since I started pondering where meat comes from, I’ve tried to give myself an occasional reminder of what’s on my plate.  Corrida is part of this exercise.

I find that the topic of conversation changes pretty quickly when I compare the life of the toro (five years of living like a king terminated by 20 minutes of painful death) with beef cattle (months of confinement in a feed lot followed by a swift death).  I lost my appetite for mass-produced beef about the time that I started going to féria events.  For me, there is barbarism in both cases.

I’ve collected here a few of the reactions I’ve gotten from friends over the past few days.  Since this is my bully pulpit, I’ve also taken the liberty of adding my responses.

  • You’re rationalizing.  Absolutely. When it comes to meat, I think we all are.  I’ve puzzled for some time over why eating 20 shrimp or one fish is somehow less reprehensible than sharing a steer with 500 other people.
  • Corrida is a blood sport where people take pleasure in seeing an animal being tortured and killed.  In fact pleasure isn't among the words that I would use to describe the complex mix of emotions that spring up at the corrida.  Anguish, guilt, grief, admiration, adrenaline, yes.  But pleasure?  
  • When cattle are raised in feed lots, it's for necessity.  In fact, a billion Hindus and other vegetarians would dispute this.  The rest of us like to eat meat, and we usually don’t think of it as an ethical question.  

Back to the corrida.  Indeed it's a dance to the death, usually.  Normally the bull is the one who dies, but not always.  On rare occasions, a bull will exhibit such great valor that the presidente (presiding judge) will demand that it be gracié (spared), in which case it is healed and retired to a life of leisure and stud service.  Very rarely, a matador is killed in combat, with the most dangerous moment being that when he is delivering the fatal blow.  

The Feria du Riz closes the bullfighting season in Arles, so the star power was significant.  The Roman arena (yes, really) had been decorated with 200,000 red rose petals and draped with red cloth.  Three matadors would each face off with two bulls, savage Spanish beasts whose first contact with humans would occur when they each exploded into the ring at their turn.  

The first matador was the venerable Enrique Ponce, considered by many to be the greatest bullfighter of all time.  Now age 41, he appeared to our untrained eyes to be overdue for retirement.  The newspapers would later describe his performances as being unlucky, with each of his two bulls being unmanageable.  Both cases were horrific sights that lend support to the anti-corrida case.  The last matador, Juan Bautista, was a young bullfighter from Arles who has made a name for himself and certainly did the locals proud with both performances on his home turf.  

Scheduled between them was El Juli, who sits near the top of most surveys of the greatest bullfighters of the current generation.  He appears to have recovered well from a severe goring in April.  Indeed, his performance with the bull Velero was stunning.  Richard was able to capture this video of one sequence.  

Near the end of the El Juli-Valero dance, things got confusing for us newbies.  A torero presented the épée (sword), but El Juli waved it away.  The audience began to boo (wow, tough crowd!) as the pair in the ring continued their dance.  The crowd then began shouting, and as the noise grew, we realized that the shouts were directed not at the ring but at the presidente.  Soon the dance of matador and bull had moved to just below the judges’ stand, quite near to our seats.  El Juli made the final thrust, the crowd exploded into applause, and suddenly the gates opened to allow Velero to run from the ring.

We turned to our neighbor for help.  ”Can you tell us what just happened?”  “El Juli pretended to kill the bull.  The crowd was angry that the presidente took so long to decide.  The bull was so valiant and brave, he was gracié.  He will be healed and retired.”  Later he added, “Don’t throw away your ticket.  You will never see anything like this again.”  

And so we saw the corrida.  Would we do it again?  Absolutely.  Will we do it again?  Time will tell.  There are so many other féria events that are simply a joy to watch, without the emotional toll. 

Meanwhile, we wish Velero a peaceful and productive retirement.  And if you'll excuse me, I’m off to cook up a lentil stew.

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