STEPHEN SMITH: The Bullfight as a Metaphor for Life
I'm visiting my mother in a nursing home -- I've been doing a lot of this in the last few years -- and I'm passing the time by watching "The Bullfighter and the Lady" on TV.
The old black-and-white film features a blond-headed Robert Stack (he later starred in "The Untouchables"), and it's all very melodramatic and full of hot-blooded foolishness that's more than a trifle pass. The film is followed by a special presentation on the "art" of bullfighting, and as I soak up all this information about Spain's cruel blood sport, it occurs to me that bullrings and nursing homes are first cousins.
Admittedly, I've never been to a bullfight. All I've ever known about the sport is what I learned from the children's story "Ferdinand the Bull" and from Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon." So the bullfight special is most enlightening.
I'm not surprised to learn that the bull, no matter how brave and tenacious he might be, never gets a reprieve. When he enters the ring, the horses that will drag his carcass away are already hitched up and chomping at the bit.
You can forget all that childhood nonsense about Ferdinand the friendly bull who didn't want to fight and was transported from the bullring to a peaceful pasture to sniff daisies and live out his days in the warm sunshine. That doesn't happen in real life, not with people or bulls. If the bull's performance is exceptional, the crowd may petition for a vuelta, and the bull's carcass will be dragged unceremoniously around the ring. So much for courage and tenacity.
The narrator assures me that bullfighting is "an essential aspect of Spanish culture," and that aficionados see it more as an artistic performance than a sport. The bull is an artist; the audience never considers him a victim. He's the matador's adversary, and he's there to earn the crowd's respect.
A bullfight begins with a couple of lance-toting picadors entering on horseback. Then three banderilleros stick banderilleras into the bull's back. Near the end of the bullfight, the matador uses the muleta, a small red cloth draped over a stick, to dominate the bull, and he concludes the match by employing his sword to kill the animal, which he must do with great panache and a single thrust.
If the audience is unhappy with the matador, he's booed and pelted with seat cushions. If he's good, the crowd throws roses and he's presented with the bull's ear.
So what does all this bullfight foolishness have to do with nursing homes?
To begin with, the woman who first read me "Ferdinand the Bull" is dozing in a wheelchair in front of the TV, oblivious to the violence that's flickering across the screen. When I was a boy, she loved to read me the story of Ferdinand. "It's so wonderful," she used to say, "how the sweet bull is set free to live his life in peace." I'm glad she's not awake to witness the final humiliating minutes of the bull's life.
When he first enters the ring, the bull is full of bravado, flaunting his strength by snorting and scuffing his hooves in the dust. As the matador turns him this way and that, the bull slowly becomes aware that this ostentatiously dressed human being can cause him discomfort -- and there seems to be a moment when the bull realizes he's mortal, that this thing waving the red cape is dangerous.
After he's been completely exhausted by the matador, the bull appears resigned to his fate -- and that's where things get a trifle too metaphoric. Life is, after all, the movement from defiance to acceptance to resignation.
When the special is over, I awaken my mother. She's surprised to see me.
"Do you remember that story you used to read me about Ferdinand the bull?" I ask.
"No," she says, "tell me what it's about."
Stephen Smith lives in Southern Pines. Contact him at email@example.com.
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