Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Death, and Not Only in the Afternoon

A. L. Kennedy, On Bullfighting

Can there be beauty in cruelty? When a man stands alone in an arena before a thousand pounds of bloodied brute force, an animal blind with pain, when the matador flashes the muleta before the bull and raises the estocada or killing sword for the final thrust--the faena--is there something sublime in this dance of death, something ugly yet touching in ritualized violence?

My father was a fan of the "sweet science"--as a kid he'd boxed flyweight--and he and I took in many bouts at local venues, and once, memorably, saw Sugar Ray Robinson box at the Garden. But these were fair fights. Aside from the palooka who took on Sugar Ray, all the fights I ever witnessed were evenly matched. Not so in the bullring, where the victim comes to the matador already pierced by the banderillas, weakened by loss of blood, crazed with fear. Boxing is fighting. The corrida is killing, pure and simple.

First the lance, then the barbed pikes (twenty-seven of them), the cape passes--tanda--that exhaust the bull, and finally the thrust of the sword into the rubio, the point where the razor-sharp blade enters the bull's heart, and the beast, gloated over by the matador in his baroque attire, topples into the dust.

Hemingway found beauty in death--in the deaths of bulls and wild animals and, perhaps too, in the deaths of men. He was, it seems, in love with it, with the sharp edge of danger, the way all things tip toward dying. I never finished Death in the Afternoon, not for dislike of Hemingway's flirtation with self-destruction, but out of disgust at the pleasure he took in the slaughter of a wounded animal. Perhaps if it were a fair fight....I know, the corrida is culture, sacred ritual, an expression of machismo or Catholic piety or something else incomprehensible to the outsider. Bulls, as A. L. Kennedy demonstrates, have a long history in European societies. I remember viewing frescoes of frolicking bulls in the Palace of Knossos, the auroch, a symbol of fertility and (male) power.  This very fresco--a leaping bull, worshiped, not slain, worn to white but still dazzling is pictured below--note the grace of the animal's form, two curved creatures, one atop the other, suspended in mid-air for the past three thousand years.  Was it the Catholic Church that needed the bulls to be killed, for their blood to be offered to propitiate the millennia of pagan animal worship? The earth was given to man to dominate, and animals to use--to slay a bull at the tail end of a hot afternoon in Seville, to prance about in the costume of a courtier wielding a sword, processing through a catechism of almost sensual rebolera (cape passes), to flirt with goring (like the death of St. Sebastian, impaled)--isn't this a kind of sacrament? Someone, or something, has to die so that we can go on living. Better the bull than the man.

 But A.L. Kennedy, who I have been reading obsessively for the past two weeks, isn't interested, or isn't only interested in the deaths of bulls. Her little book is about her own dying, or near dying, and about how she hoisted herself up from the grave on the blood of what is, to any but an aficionado, a macabre spectator sport:

"And if it does so happen that a human being finds death in the corrida's rarefied afternoon, if a torero, or perhaps one of his cuadrilla, is fatally wounded, then the corrida is intended to redefine the moment of death, to act as our translator. Even the almost always inevitable death of the bull is meant to be controlled within the corrida's physical language, the structure and the sad necessities of its world. The corrida can be seen as an extraordinary effort to elevate the familiar, mysterious slapstick, the irrevocable, indecipherable logic of damage and death, into something almost accessible. The corrida can be seen as both a ritualised escape from destruction and a bloodly search for meaning in the end of a life, both an exorcism and an act of faith."

If I were to encounter this paragraph in the work of a literary theorist I'd blanch--what would be coming would be a dense "reading" of the corrida with much deployment of jargon and a lot of references to Nietzsche. But Kennedy is an artist, a novelist and short story writer who just happened to be unable to write, who was in several kinds of pain, close to suicide, when she set off for Spain to write an account of bullfighting. While On Bullfighting is learned, its preoccupations are personal in the way that the investigation of the universal always feels personal: the book is a quiet, and beautiful, meditation on death. Not on its sublimity, but its inevitability.

When Kennedy describes the faena, the stylized and "almost religious" posture of the matador as he drives the sword home, her tone flattens, as if she too felt the anti-climax. One imagines that at the end, were the bull to be granted speech, he would say, "Let's get it over with. All this fuss. And what have you proved?" For in the end, as Kennedy's vivid account of the corrida shows, the bull's dying isn't the point, and neither is the sad spectacle of the "fight." In the end the corrida has the pointlessness of a Mass or an exorcism--when it's over, and if you've survived, you must go on. And the beauty of Kennedy's book, and of her stories and novels, is that everyone finds a way to go on, whatever the cost.

The last words of the book? "I don't know what to do."

George Ovitt 9/23/14

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