Dances W/ Bulls

Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.

– Ernest Hemingway ‘Death in the Afternoon’

One of the books I picked up from this summer’s used book sale at the library was ‘Death in the afternoon’ by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s richly detailed ode to the culture of bullfighting in Spain written in 1932.

I scooped up this non-fiction tome not so much to learn about the sport of bullfighting–but more so to study Hemingway’s craftsmanship w/ his sentence structure. If a good bullfighting narrative was also part of the read, so much the better.

I have actually read a decent sample of his work–the Nick Adams short stories, his memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’, and his novels ‘A Farewell to Arms’ ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and ‘The Sun also Rises’ are books that I’ve read over the years. The latter is known as his ‘bullfighting’ story: about an American expat and his friends who travel from France to Spain.

So there was some familiarity w/ both his writing style and that he was a bullfighting fan. But it had been more than a few years since I read any ‘Hemingway’, so a non-fiction read on the bulls sounded interesting enough to me to throw it in the literary grab bag at the book sale. . The ‘grab bag’ is the book deal that is offered to those book buyers who are still in attendance during the last hour of the sale. As many books as you can put in a plastic grocery bag for five bucks is the offer. And, of course, that’s an offer no self-respecting bibliophile can refuse. Plenty of good reads found their way into that bag, I can assure you. 13 books found their way into that bag if my memory is correct.

But I digress.

Hemingway is known for his short, punchy declarative sentences. And though I had read his memoir, it was circa 2000 when I did, so there was no real recall as to sentence structure w/ his non-fiction. I wasn’t paying attention to sentence size back then, anyways. All I do remember is that I enjoyed that book.

So here was another opportunity to observe the master at his craft. To see how he put those short sentences to work.


Hemingway didn’t earn his reputation for those types of sentences from this work. The whole writing was built around compound sentences from the beginning. Not a sentence w/ single digits of words in the book to my recollection. One sentence had nine commas in it. Really? Hemingway? Yes, it’s true. And though I don’t think I saw another w/ so many commas, there were plenty of other multiple comma spliced sentences throughout the book. He even apologized for his elongated sentences in the beginning. He was very conscious of the sentence structures. But he believed that that was what was needed to best describe the narrative inside the bull ring.

So much for the idea of seeing what could be gleaned from reading short declarative sentences from the master of that style.

Ah. But when a literary door closes a philosophical window just might be opened.

And w/ the assistance of a broad hindsight that comes from reading something 83 years later when the author is long dead I could evaluate his real-time thoughts from the perspective of how his life later played out in it’s entirety.

It wasn’t the interest in bullfighting that fueled the continued page turning, per se. It was the interest in Hemingway’s interest in bullfighting that was the catalyst. The book covers all you ever would want to know about bullfighting in Spain in 1932 and more. In fact, way too much information for the vast American reading public at the time who would have little to no knowledge about bullfighting in Spain. All the detail is the by-product of Hemingway’s numerous afternoons spent in the stands. He had witnessed over 1500 bulls killed at the time of the writing and considered himself an expert on the intricacies of the sport. But as I read all this overwrought detail that Hemingway himself points out in the book is near worthless for those who have never seen a bullfight I had to wonder who/what was he writing for. W/ the strong commentary that could only come from a person who considered himself an expert about everything bullfighting I could only assume that he was writing for posterity. This book would be the final word on the state of the sport in the late 1920’s-early ’30’s when later generations wanted to know how it was then. The history of bullfighting in this era written w/ the truth that could only be written by one who was there and witnessed the sport w/ his own ‘expert’ eyes.

Expert? Actually, the proper word would be aficionado. Whatever term you use, he certainly had a strong opinion on the sport. One that seems to have been formed by many a conversation w/ other ‘aficionados’ both during and after the many afternoons they were in the stands watching all the action in the ring.

He sets the reader straight right away in that he didn’t classify bullfighting as truly a sport. Not in the way that Americans think of ‘sport’, anyways. He begins chapter two w/ the following definition, ‘The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather it is a tragedy; the death of the bull…’

Thus, where an American or Brit might see bullfighting as a relic of an earlier more barbaric age, Hemingway sees this ‘tragedy’ as an art form.

‘The art of bullfighting…is only kept from being one of the major arts because it is impermanent…’, he writes a few pages later.

He understands, of course, that not everyone is going to be taken by a ‘sport’ where the end result is the killing of a bull-he understands that the blood, gore and the killing isn’t going to find the fancy for a sizeable amount of folks- rather he compares witnessing of the action in the ring to the drinking of wine.

‘But, as with wine, you will know when you first try it whether you like it as a thing or not…’

And as a person who enjoys wine increases his/her pleasure by increasing the knowledge of the different grapes, so it is w/ the person who is taken in by the spectacle of the bullfight from the first. You’ll either be taken by the spectacle. Or not. That’s all. No judging of the rightness or wrongness of either position by Hemingway. He just lets the reader know where he stands. And why.

If you’re one of the ‘likes’?

Well this book was written w/ the intention of increasing that person’s knowledge so he/she will get more out of their bullfighting experience. Hemingway will let you know what you should be looking for when you’re in the stands, to be sure. To separate the artful from the artless when it comes to killing a bull.

Although there are plenty of supporting actors to the drama in the ring, the main performers in creating the artistry are the bull and the bullfighter.

It is impossible to transform any action into high art w/o both a ‘good bull’ and a ‘good bullfighter’. Having only one or the other or neither, leads to an unsatisfactory performance for the learned eye. To the ‘decadence’ of the sport. And Hemingway saw a lot of decadence w/ the state of bullfighting in the 1930’s.

The bull and the matador are the artists. The aficionado is the critic. And the criteria for the work rests solely on the danger.

It’s only a ‘brave’ bull and a ‘brave’ matador that will bring out majesty of the event. And this, according to Hemingway, is a rare occurrence.

He writes that he saw a bull killed ‘well’ in the first fight he saw–though he didn’t know that at the time–and had hardly the experience to appreciate the skill of the matador and the bravery of the bull or understand the rarity of such an occurrence. He goes on to write that it took another 50 bullfights before he saw a bull killed in such a manner again.

And what brings about the proper kill? The artful death of the bull?

Well the bull must get so close to the matador that his life is in danger when he makes the killing thrust w/ his sword. The horns must come w/in inches of the fighter at the time of his death. The chance for the matador to be gored must be a true part of the equation when he’s doing his dance of death w/ the bull. And it’s only the skill of the fighter that keeps him from being grievously hurt or killed while brings about the bull’s demise. That and some luck sometimes. If he kills the bull while the bull is too far away to injure him this is ‘trickery’ on the part of the matador. A form of ‘cheating’, if you will. And the learned viewers will disapprove of the action. Alas, this is what happens in the vast majority of the bullfights according to our resident aficionado.

The problem, as Hemingway acknowledges, is that if you attempt to kill ‘well’ enough times you will eventually be gored. Every matador will get gored in due time. And if he isn’t killed by the goring, the injury will be at the least very painful. Painful enough that the once ‘brave’ matador many a time will resort to ‘trickery’ when he encounters his next bull. It’s the rare bullfighter who comes back from serious injury and again is killing bulls in an artful manner. And for good reason, as Hemingway concedes. Once you mess w/ the bull and get the horns? Well it’s human nature to be once gored and twice shy. This is what in the end will separate the true artist from the tricksters. Having the courage to continue to get close enough to the bull to kill well after you’ve suffered the consequences from the previous encounter/encounters. Yes, most of the matadors he writes about have been gored multiple times.

As for the bull? By Spanish law a bull must be killed on his first fight. There are no second acts for him. Either by the matador–or if the fighter suffers such an injury that won’t allow for him to make the kill–or someone else.

A dead bull once he enters the ring is a foregone conclusion. He only gets one performance on the stage, even if he ‘wins’ the contest. And why the sensibilities of so many are offended by the ‘sport’.

But Hemingway wants you to take note of the dangers to the matador too.

If you agree w/ the premise that both ‘good’ bulls and ‘good’ fighters are true artists? Well that’s taking the phrase ‘suffering for one’s art’ to a new level to that way of thinking, to be sure.

Hemingway explains near the end what the mindset must be to see a bull killed ‘well’ as an art form. How the people in Spain who enjoy bullfighting think about all the death that takes place in that ring. ‘The people of Castille have great common sense…They know death is the unescapable reality, the one thing any man may be sure of…They think a great deal about death…Having this feeling they take an intelligent interest in death and when they can see it being given, avoided, refused and accepted in the afternoon for a nominal price of admission they pay their money and go to the bull ring, continuing to go even when, for certain reasons that I have tried to show in this book, they are most often artistically disappointed and emotionally defrauded.’

And the implicit message is that he and all the other aficionados share their sentiments as well.

Honor. Bravery. Courage. Cowardice. Death. Kill. These words permeate the text. Of course the great irony after reading this book is knowing of Hemingway’s death by his own hand nearly 30 years later in Ketchum, Idaho. It’s a consistent theme in his writings. But in this book he makes the case for the one who has the ability to ‘kill well’ as artist.

W/ that shotgun blast was Hemingway validating or repudiating his earlier opinions on the subject? In his own mind? In the minds of others?

What was he trying to say w/ his own death? Was he trying to say anything?

The only place where you could see life and death, i. e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death.

The world breaks everyone…those that will not break it kills.

When you stop doing things for fun you might as well be dead.

A man can be destroyed but not defeated.

To me heaven would be a bull ring with me holding two barrera seats…

– Ernest Hemingway

All things must pass. But why did he feel the need to speed up the process in his own case? And in such a violent manner?

Maybe he saw his own life as a bullfight in those last days. Where he was both bull and matador. Giving him the opportunity to both kill and be killed well. Making sure his own was an artful death.

Who knows?

Mere speculation on my part after reading the book. That’s all. 54 years after his death, no harm no foul in throwing that thought out there.

 Just a morning muse. This from Wednesday’s walk in the woods. No doubt there’ll be some new and different thoughts compiled tomorrow morning.

That I do know.

Happy musings.











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