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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 11, No. 2, 2012
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Robert J. Lewis
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If many come close to feeling the truth only by telling a lie,
the Mexican comes close to love
by watching the flow of blood on an animal’s flanks.
Norman Mailer


While in Mexico (Barra de Navidad) over the Christmas holidays, in a $35/night hotel room that included a small kitchen and living room, AC and cable TV, I had watched (forgoing sun and sea), during the holy Navidad weekend, no less than 20 gloriously gory, one-sided altercations between matador and bull, and was now in the mood for the real thing.

When one of the Barra locals (un policía) explained that in Cihuatlán, the nearest town with a Plaza de Toros, they don’t kill the bull, I couldn’t help but register huge disappointment. In point of fact my blood began to boil: the nerve, the outrageous pretense of sparing bull in a country that fessed up to 13,000 drug-related deaths in 2011. My interlocutor, no doubt, was equally disappointed, there being no basis for extracting a ‘tip’ from our brief question and answer summit. But it was a sleepy day in this tranquil coastal town of 5,000, so, on my behalf, he phoned Cihuatlán and assured me that there would indeed be ‘no blood’ on Sunday and festivities begin at 5 pm. A week later, he would be investigating a murder in the nearby town of Melaque, where Scottish-Canadian citizen Robin Wood was killed in a botched burglary.

For all the laudatory, madly inspired tomes written on the high art of bullfighting, consider the fact that the average bull is worth 35 litres of blood. If it dies a deliciously slow death at the hands of an incompetent torero (matador), it’ll leak about 10 litres of that amount. Which means on a good day the spectator will be treated to 100 litres of spilled blood, which, in theory, should be enough to get the afición from Sunday to Sunday without having to seek out alternative sources. So when I aver that I was in the mood for blood, I wanted to see -- and without apology -- a veritable blood bath, the earth turn rojo and watch bulls (and matadors) die a slow death.

To finger-quick readers who have already crossed me off their lists and assigned me to the category of unregenerate, blood-thirsty savage, I propose that my lust for blood is not an isolated perversion. Where good society hasn’t banned the sport, the bull rings are full to capacity and the red dye used in T-shirt manufacture is certified organic.

Is it beyond the pale to suggest that human beings are most likely to rise to the occasion of authenticity when gathered as a punitive mob or assembled to witness a blood-letting?

What draws (after Holy Communion) the empirically vampiric to the bull ring is the same that makes a heavyweight championship fight the most watched event on the planet, that brings many to near delirium during a Formula I crash, and bids millions to watch replays of the most horrible accidents and crimes (Challenger exploding, the collapse of the Twin Towers). During a big boxing match, crime rates drop by 25% worldwide. It seems that everyone everywhere can’t get enough of blood, gore and death, all of which suggests that the regrettably retired Roman Coliseum, as a state of mind, is enjoying an afterlife that dwarfs that of the Nazarene’s now relegated to the rites of Sunday school and cheerless Church ceremony.

The blunt and brutal fact of the matter is that we, especially men, like to watch things die (the slower the better) and are prepared to spend considerable sums of money for that very particularized pleasure. Like deer frozen in bright headlights at night, we are fascinated by death. As an autopsy-resistant event shrouded in mystery, death is both the bewitching darkness at noon we cannot refuse and gravitational force against whose escape velocity the mind is no match.

We are a species that hungers to know. We are wired to invest our energies and three score and ten endeavouring to make known the unknown, and are rewarded, that is relieved of the fear and anxiety aroused by the unknown, when we succeed. Our obsession with dangerous sports speaks to that hunger. But since death is existentially unknowable, we are fated to be left on the edges of our seats looking into the abyss, into the cloudy eyes of the bull and boxer on their way out – and no farther. Like Sisyphus condemned forever to roll the rock up the hill only to have it roll down again and again, there shall be no purchase on death no matter how many bull fights or boxing matches we attend.

Does the mystery of death recede the closer we get to it, and like a feel-good drug over time, we require more of it for the same effect? The number of new extreme and dangerous sports has increased exponentially during the past 25 years, amplified by the proliferation of cable and satellite TV that now bring lethal combat to the remotest regions of the planet.

Left to our own devices, how many of us would rip up a ticket to a man versus lion mismatch, or snub the opportunity to view a snuff film, where the actor, usually female, gets killed during the making of the film, or stay home to watch replays of I Love Lucy while a public hanging is taking place? What compels us to sports where death is either a promise or a possibility is not the inner savage having its way, but our insatiable curiosity to know about death so to better prepare for our own.

There is much to be learned watching ourselves watching bulls and boxers die or drop. For the occasion of the matador’s final thrust, an inexpert estocado will puncture the bull’s lung instead of the aorta. The animal, bleeding at the shoulders and neck, vomiting torrents of blood, will wobble, shudder, crumple and die. It is the breathless, euphoric moment in the sport that everyone pays for. In the case of the boxer who has been bloodied, staggered and KO’d, there is perhaps nothing more satisfying in all of sport than watching the fighter resurrect himself off the canvas and come back to fight another round, a spectacle that rivals the comeback around which Christianity was founded.

That we are a transcendent species is a proposal the facts on the ground cannot support. With a nod to Plato and observable human behaviour throughout the ages, it seems that the mind is at the service of the passions -- and not the other way around.

With all due respect to the awe and humility I have experienced in the presence of the great achievements in the arts and humanities, it was while watching bulls expire in the pools of their blood that left me feeling unprecedentedly alive and vital, giddy and shaken and gasping for breath. It was not Fra Angelico’s “Annunciation” but bull’s blood that made me see that the enduring truth of blood sport is revealed not in the ring but in the collective response of the spectator for whom the vicarious experience of death or near death produces the opposite, animating effect. “The one thing we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety,” writes Emerson. In a sound and fury that borders on ecstasy, which just happens to be the name of a drug, what is invariable in the spectator response to near death moments in sport is the obliteration of self-consciousness and the rapturous light-headedness that takes over.

Whatever medical indices one adduces to measure life potency, in the presence of a blood fiesta a crowd’s numbers go off the charts and into the adrenalinsphere, effectively diminishing the predictive value of the law of diminishing returns. Chiseled into the distorted, frenzied face of any audience singularized by its fascination with death is the understanding that all human endeavour reduces to “the eternal recurrence of the same;” meaning after the last bull has been killed, the last boxer dropped, the enigma of death still remains, which predicts we shall not cease from knocking on heavens door – until we gain entry.

No surprise to observe that the rites of death are renewed and re-enacted everyday everywhere on the planet. And in those rooms where people come and go, talking of Michelangelo, well, my hunch is that they are just passing time waiting for the next bull to be let out.

When Islam calls for the public stoning to death of its sinners (usually female), two fundamental desiderata are being addressed. The impure sinner is expeditiously removed from the collective (with the example serving as a warning to others), and the crowd’s curiosity about death is temporarily stayed.

Despite personal issues with radical Islam’s propensity to convert its most vulnerable into human bombs and treat its women like chattel, the tradition of public stoning, as a more fully realized expression of bull fighting and boxing, is a reminder that good and evil are best worked out in the context of pluralism. Short of outrightly converting, there may very well come a day when I will judge myself as having lived incompletely (inauthentically) in the absence of witnessing a live stoning.

* * * * * * * * * *

If the above portrait is accurate in the way it speaks to what is universal in the species response to lethal sport, and makes us cover our eyes in shame, what can we do to remake ourselves to better please the eye? How are we to rise above the imperatives of our genotype? What must happen to make us want to command ourselves to stand still before the mirror and take into full account what is there: an unhappy, confused, self-loathing creature whose flabby, slothful mind has been no match against the tried and tested straight-arm of human nature? Of the many questions we ask of ourselves everyday over the course of a lifetime, are some more essential than others? What questions, if any, do an endangered species proud?

As much as I still occasionally get caught up in the frenzy of blood sport, by far and away my favourite contest is between reason and human nature, in part, because it’s a game I get to play everyday, and that the former now enjoys winning streaks that are becoming longer and more frequent with each passing year. Last but not least, this is a team sport, which implicates the Internet (the word) in ways that were previously unimaginable, and everyone can play.

So for all of us "at play in the fields of the Lord," I say go team go, for there will soon come a time when losing will not be an option.



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Please stop this animal abuse!
Man sollte diese Mörder alle genau so abschlachten wie sie es mit den Tieren machen = One should slaughter those murderers exactly as they do the animals.
Sorry, except for the bull gouging the matodor through the jaw, I didnt get the point. I happen to be one of those persons who, while left relatively undisturbed at the sight of blood, don't enjoy watching it being spilled. But I now better appreciate the source of your misanthropy.
I'm really not sure where this essay is going. Yes, crime rates go down when there is a big fight, but also when there is the World Series, the Super Bowl, and other athletic metaphors for combat. So does that mean we're still primarily primitive or have the capacity to appreciate sublimations? And that's without counting all kinds of other non-athletic diversions vis-a-vis crime. This piece is just a little bit too mechanistic.
What kind of cripple minded people think this stuff up? INSANE!
What kind of HUMANS do this to a voiceless animal, or should I say CREATURE OF GOD? Karma does come back, when you least expect it!

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