Beauty and the bullfight

Last night I was reading from Ox Travels, a collection of travel stories given to me at Christmas by a wonderful friend.

When I read these days, my brain is always scanning for ideas on beauty, and a couple came up in the chapters I read last night, but none were more provocative than in Jason Webster’s story ‘Rafaelillo’.

Perhaps you are thinking that a bullfight is an odd place to find beauty. Certainly for many of us the bullfight is more about cruelty and man’s assertion of power and dominance over a crippled beast. But for Rafaelillo, a retired bullfighter, there is incomparable beauty to be found in the sacred and noble traditions of the fight.

Extract from ‘Rafaelillo’ by Jason Webster (Ox Travels: Meetings with Remarkable Travel Writers, Profile Books, 2011)

A sharp freezing wind blew through us, ruffling the matador’s cape. ‘That’s bad,’ Rafaelillo said. ‘There’s only one thing worse than windy conditions, and that’s a manso bull, one with no fighting spirit in it.’

I glanced up briefly at the mountains just visible in the distance. through the dark grey cloud it was possible to make out the peaks turning white with snow.

‘Wouldn’t an unaggressive bull be easier?’ I asked.

‘Quite the reverse. A manso bull is the hardest to read. Most of the time it’s trying to get out of the ring, then suddenly it might lift its horns in a way no one expected…’

He tossed his head to one side, as though skewering an invisible matador standing next to him.

‘What you want, what everyone wants, is a truly bravo bull, one that takes the fight to the bullfighter, that never gives up and struggles till the very end. That’s where the real beauty comes. That’s where the art and power is.’

‘You make it sound like a sacred act.’

Still looking down at the ring, he pursed his lips. Then without warning he leant over and pulled open my jacket and lifted my jumper a fraction, then glanced down at my shoes.

‘Leather belt, leather boots,’ he said. ‘I take it you’re not a vegetarian.’

‘No.’

‘I respect vegetarians. I don’t agree with them, but I respect them.’

He rubbed long fingers over his chin.

‘What I can’t abide are those who condemn me as a murderer while eating fillet steak and wearing leather jackets.’

‘Perhaps it’s the public aspect of this they don’t like,’ I said. ‘Turning it into a spectacle.’

‘If you think this is just a spectacle, then you haven’t understood anything about bullfighting.’

He turned his attention back to the events on the sand.

I sat motionless, my eyes fixed on the drama below. Perera seemed to have brought the bull quickly and silently under his command.

Then something extraordinary unfolded, something so strange it was like a kiss, an unexpected yet meaningful kiss from a beautiful woman you thought was unattainable. It was as if the division between matador and bull disappeared, as though for a fleeting instant they became one single being, brought together and unified by their struggle: one entity, not separated by their mutual wish to kill each other, but drawn to each other by a kind of tenderness, a passion. It was as if, for a brief time, they were joined through something that felt almost like love. But it was not any kind of love that I had ever sensed or been aware of before, nothing I had ever known. And yet it was there, bending them and making them one.

It came in a flash, one exceptional moment, and was gone. But the entire crowd had felt it as well, and a roar went up. Many were on their feet, clapping, more shouts of ole echoing around, while at the other side of the arena the band started up on a paso doble.

Rafaelillo turned and looked at me. He could see it in my face: yes, I’d sensed it as well.

‘Do you understand now?’

No need to answer.

‘It can’t be explained. It can only be experienced.’

My gaze returned to the graceful and powerful figure of Perera below.

‘This is what they want to take away from us. They are only capable of seeing a man killing a bull in public. Nothing more. And it shocks them, so they want it to be hidden away.’

He swept an arm through the air.

‘But this is not an unsung, unheroic death along with millions of others in some industrial abattoir. Here we look death in the face, and the bull looks death in the face, and with that we celebrate life. This is not a sport. Nor is it a spectacle. It is a ritual with ancient roots, involving everyone here – bull, bullfighters and audience.’

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