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Column - Bullfighting is a ritual of cruelty

The cruelty of bullfighting has somewhat diminished my long-time enthusiasm for Ernest Hemingway's works.

Last week, while re-reading for the umpteenth time Hemingway's Collected Stories, I began to read The Undefeated, a story about bullfighting, but I could not finish it. The unspeakably cruel details of bullfighting made me almost physically sick. In that story, there is a long, gory description of picadors in action (men on horses that goad the bull into a tormenting frenzy by poking it with long lances). After the spectacle of blood, cruelty and pain, the exhausted bull is of course killed by the matador with the thrust of a sword.

The 49 stories in Collected Stories are interspersed here and there with vivid vignettes, untitled, that are just a paragraph or two in length. Several concern bullfighting. Here is an excerpt that turned my stomach:

"They whack-whacked the white horse on the legs and he kneed himself up. The picador twisted the stirrups straight and pulled and hauled up into the saddle. The horse's entrails hung down in a blue bunch and swung backward and forward as he began to canter, the monos whacking him on the back of his legs with the rods . . . Blood pumped regularly from between the horse's front legs. He was nervously wobbly. The bull could not make up his mind to charge."

Ever since I began reading Hemingway, when I was 18, those bullfighting descriptions always made me squirm, but they never disturbed me like they do now. I suppose it's because I'm older now, more vulnerable to mortality and pain, which helps me relate to other creatures in pain -- human and non-human.

To Hemingway and to many others, bullfighting is an almost mystical transcendent ritual in which death (bull vs. matador) is the focus. One of Hemingway's dominant themes (grace under pressure) gets full treatment in the bull arena, especially in his first great novel, The Sun Also Rises. The trouble is, the "grace under pressure" applies to the matador, not to the unfortunate bull or to the hapless gored horses who have no choice in this "mystical" slaughter. In a nonfiction book entitled Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway, like a stern schoolteacher, gushed on and on about the magnificence of bullfighting and its "elemental" meanings. A great bullfight, he claimed, brings about a deep emotional catharsis in the viewers. His ruminations in that book were, in my opinion, mostly certified bull-oney.

The fact is, bullfighting is not much different from what the ancient Romans did to Christians and anybody else they happened to dislike. They devised hideous ways to torment and butcher them, along with multitudes of imported animals, in amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire. It was "entertainment" available even to the penniless masses.

Fortunately, bullfighting is banned in many countries, including in the United States, although there is a bullfighting "school" based in San Diego. The "sport," as some call it, still survives in many Latin countries, but it doesn't flourish as it once did. Thankfully, more would now rather attend a rousing soccer match than a bullfight. And there is hope, knowing that bullfighting was banned last year in Catalonia, a region in southeastern Spain. Catalonia has long been known for its bullfights. The first one took place there in 1387. Catalonia is also the early stamping grounds of Pablo Picasso, who was, like Hemingway, another bullfighting obsessive.

Hemingway and Picasso both grappled with the major themes of life, many of them disturbing extremes: war, humans vs. nature, the difficulty of relationships, loss of faith, nothingness, despair. They were courageous to take on those issues. However, when it comes to bullfighting (and big-game hunting in Hemingway's case), I for one can do without their celebrations of cruelty.

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Dennis Dalman, a former reporter for the Echo Press, is a regular contributing columnist to the Opinion page. He is currently the editor of the St. Joseph Newsleader. He can be reached via e-mail at