Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Muerte! Muerte! by Ben Woollard

The Sevillan river water ripples by the miniature castle landmark where we gather, three of us, here now for a show we’ve heard so much about. We wander over to the arena, as it is called, some surviving relic of Roman games, a coliseum in guise by any other name. The purpose of the day would make Hemingway proud: Americans venturing from their study abroad host parents' homes out into the thick of old Spain and its vieja cultura--the long esteemed, infamous bullfight. Curiosity has brought us here, although none of our small group could call themselves either an advocate or enthusiast for the concept itself, but this is Seville after all; and what is a summer in Spain without a glimpse at a thing so much discussed? 

The sun beats down as we climb to our shaded seats with an ample view of the ochre grounds circular before all present. The burnt earth odor of cigar smoke drifts languidly around the brimmed hats, buttoned shirts, and tinted glasses. I feel as if I’ve stepped backwards two thousand years into a red tint of Caesars, thumbs up, thumbs down, we who are about to die. It is not the blood of the gladiator that will be spilled before us today, but the blood of horned Taurus, valiant in its ritual end. We sit and talk nervously to each other, still unsure about how we will react to the scene about to unfold. I cannot tell if the tension is in the air or just in me as we wait for some commencement.

When the crowd has settled and the stillness reaches a climax, finally the beast in question is released into the circle. The bull romps about with nostrils flared and hackles raised, chasing the brightly colored fabrics waved around by the brave men at the edges of the field. The scene is one of apparent disorder, taunts and strewn dirt. Applause and trumpets follow as the story progresses. Out come armor clad picadores atop equally protected horses fitted with masks over their eyes, men with lance in hand. The cavalry approaches, dirt flying up from hooves, and in goes pointed metal, driven deeper and deeper even as the creature tries to gore and flip the horse and rider away with grit determination. I feel a conflicted mixture of cringe at the suffering inflicted and curiosity at such a complex and decadent rite. We see crimson leak from the bull’s back, painting the arena Pollock-style. Again a horseman comes, lunging spear’s shaft directly into the neck, this time coming away smeared with bull’s blood. More trumpets sound, vibrating the air giving the gods fair notice: here is your sacrifice. Man and bull continue to whirl pink and red around each other, dervishes in fatal dance. I can see the animal’s breath thickening, weight gained from pain.

Out comes another ornately clad individual, arms raised with spiked batons, praying mantis like, briefly holding pose before running directly towards the bull, stabbing the red and yellow spikes in as he avoids the horns, the colors of the day now clinging to the creature. This act is repeated twice more, with two more daring banderillas sprinting in turn into the fray, adding white to the medley. When the dust has settled six batons hang down over the now blood soaked sides. One of my companions is audibly muttering curses to herself, directed at the men on the field who would, in her mind, so unrightfully harm such a noble inhabitant of this green earth. I cannot say that I disagree with her sentiments, but still some war-god beauty fascinates me and holds my eyes on the work being done. The whirling begins once more, this time desperation seems apparent in the bull’s step, now having been dazed and weakened, perhaps realizing it stands on the sacrificial altar.

Out comes the matador himself, all chin raised gallantry, saluting the crowd with a removal of his hat. The crowd cheers for the corporeal representative of human domination over nature. Armed with a scarlet muleta the man steps out to face his foe, now blood crazed and delirious. Over and over the horns charge, each time missing the goading figure posing beside the fabric. He jeers and turns his back as his body’s well-being is almost stolen from him by a hairsbreadth. He seems almost pompous in his confidence, chest puffed out and chin raised, but I realize this is itself part of the role of the matador, to flaunt his fearlessness, to turn his back on death with a bow and a wave to the audience. Once the bull has been spun dizzy the sword is drawn and pointed in the proper direction: towards the beast to be slain. The matador stiffens, becoming suddenly serious as the moment approaches that will require use of his outstretched blade. Now it is the man that charges, aiming between the shoulder blades and the heart that beats beneath it. He charges once, and the sword falls, he retrieves it, charges again, and this time comes away with only the hilt visible above the now deeply embedded weapon. The crowd begins to wave white bandanas, shouting: Muerte! Muerte! Death! Death! The pink muleta wielding dervishes return to the circle, waving neon confusion into the profusely bleeding animal until it takes a knee, then two, snorting in the matador’s direction before finally lying down and acknowledging defeat as its life is drained drop by drop. The ears are removed and hung around the matador’s neck, a sign of respect and prestige for a fight well fought. Blood soaks the afternoon and I am left with the strange feeling of having my illusions about the present state of humanity shattered.

As we walk silently out of the Plaza de Toros, the crimson-golden sun now sinking closer and closer to the horizon, I think dazedly of the United States, and all our egoism in believing in the undeniable progress of our species. How far we’ve come, they say, from those foolish barbarians and superstitious ancestors, even I have thought myself on the crest of modernization, yet here I’ve witnessed blood sacrifice, and for what purpose I can’t quite be sure. I do not condemn the minority of Spaniards who attend, or even the bullfight itself; how could I when I myself watched in semi-sickened fascination? There is a beauty in the on goings of the coliseum altar, yet how wrong I was in assuming that such beauty had no place in our “civilized” world, how wrong I was in thinking it obvious that the blood thirst in humanity had been fully tamed. I have seen for myself how this contemporary world still feels the vibrations of instinct and sanguinary mob-mindedness, gripping tightly its need for sacrifice. We walk home along the late-day river gurgling calmly on as it divides the ancient metropolis. The sweltering heat finally begins to fade as we turn into city center and separate, homebound.


Ben Woollard is an English student based out of Portland, Oregon, with a long-standing passion for literature, travel, cultural/ideological exploration, and the ways in which reality is constructed through symbols. Ben maintains a blog on his personal website,

Judge's Comment: We accompany the writer to a bullfight in Seville. The sensitive subject is tackled in a nonjudgmental way, and leads us to question our own self-righteousness. 'I do not condemn...even the could I when I myself watched in semi-sickened fascination?' The images are stark: 'We see crimson leak from the bull's back, painting the arena Pollock-style.'