On July 28 the regional legislature of Catalonia passed a law banning bullfights. The official rationale was that bullfights involve cruelty to animals. This is undoubtedly true (though I, for one, am not sure that killing in an abattoir is necessarily less cruel). It is widely assumed that there is a more relevant political rationale—to demonstrate once again that Catalonia has a culture distinct from that of Spain, and to eliminate from it as many Spanish characteristics as possible (including the Castilian language) from the public life of the region. This is very probably true as well.
But there is a more fundamental rationale. It was succinctly expressed by Josep Rull, a Catalan politician, who denied that the ban was directed against Spain, but said that it rather showed once again that Catalans share “more advanced values with the rest of Europe.” Just what are these “advanced values”? Clearly they include the values of democracy and human rights that have been achieved in Spain in the wake of the Franco regime. This is a remarkable achievement. Spain today is a model democracy, in which human rights are respected and enshrined in the rule of law.
The European Union has fortified these values, made them a condition of being admitted, and helped to spread them outside its borders to countries hoping for admission (the famous acquis). Europeans are rightly proud of all this. Yet there is also a cultural aspect that is independent of a country signing on to the thousands of pages of EU law—call it a cultural acquis. Quite apart from a country’s legal relationship to the European Union, there is its relationship to what I would call the European cultural package—a conglomerate of beliefs and lifestyles that have made Europe more homogeneous, and ipso facto more amenable to political and economic unity. In this connection one fact is very important: Europe is the most secularized part of the world. I would argue that secularity is a key ingredient of the European package. As a country becomes more integrated into Europe, it acquires European secularity. The recent history of Ireland and Poland provides examples. Spain is a prime example.
The bullfight is at heart a religious ritual. It began as such, probably in ancient Crete. At some point it migrated to the Iberian peninsula and became an important ingredient of Spanish tradition—indeed a symbol of that tradition. As such it was linked to Catholicism, but it retained an archaic flavor distinct from its Catholic trappings. The bullfighters march into the arena to the stirring hymn of the Virgin of Macarena, but, if one listens carefully, one can detect invocations to more ancient divinities. (Of course the Catholic church has very often succeeded in combining its faith with older strains of belief and piety.)
The bullfight is a metaphor of the human condition, vulnerable to the brute force of nature, yet capable of confronting it with courage and grace. Miguel de Unamuno, probably the greatest Spanish writer of the twentieth century, has described what he called “the tragic sense of life” (“El sentimiento tragico de la vida”—the title of his most famous book, published in 1913). I cannot recall his discussing the bullfight, but the latter certainly expresses the “tragic sense” he described and which he put at the core of Spanish culture. Unamuno also wrote at length about what he thought was the distinctiveness of Spain, sharply posited as against the Europe north of the Pyrenees. He regarded Don Quixote as the embodiment of this Spanish myth. The bullfighter too is an embodiment of the myth.
The most eloquent evocation of the bullfighter as mythic hero can be found in the poem “Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias” by Federico Garcia Lorca, probably the greatest Spanish poet of the twentieth century. It meditates at length about the death of a bullfighter “at five in the afternoon”, the time of the famous “moment of truth”—when, this time, “the bull ring was covered in iodine” and “the wounds were burning like suns”. Lorca mourns the death of Ignacio, praises him, and vows to preserve his memory. The poem ends with the line “I remember a sad breeze through the olive trees”. I would suggest that today the poem can also be read as a lament for the ritual of the bullfight.
The myth of the distinctiveness of Spain was part and parcel of the ideology of the Nationalist uprising and of the Franco regime that resulted from its victory. In consequence, the myth was stripped of its legitimacy. It had served to sanctify an odious, bloody tyranny. It is noteworthy that both the aforementioned authors became victims of the regime. Lorca (who, rightly or wrongly, had been seen as sympathetic to the Left) was murdered in July 1936 by Nationalist troops after they occupied Granada. A few months later, in December 1936, Unamuno became a different sort of victim. He had originally sympathized with the Nationalist side in the Civil War, believing it to represent precisely the traditional values he had long espoused. But he was appalled by the atrocities committed by the Nationalists wherever they took control. They did so again when they occupied Salamanca, whose ancient university he served as rector. The university was reopened in December 1936 with a ceremony over which he presided. It was attended by the commanding general and a number of other Nationalist dignitaries, including Franco’s wife who was there for some reason. There were some militant speeches, praising the eradication of opposition intellectuals, to the shouts of what was a common slogan of the Nationalists—“Long live death” (“Viva la muerte!”—I think the custom originated with the Tercio, the foreign legion stationed in Spanish Morocco, where the insurrection had begun). When it was time for the rector to speak, Unamuno denounced the slogan as “necrophiliac” and called the commanding general, who was sitting in front of him, a moral “invalid”. Unamuno was expelled from the hall and placed under house arrest. He died of a heart attack about a week later.
It is very understandable that the new Spanish democracy distanced itself from the myth that had caused so much bloodshed and pain. In the course of this, however, Spain embraced the profoundly anti-mythic animus that has become endemic to European secularity. It is a typical case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Quite apart from any specific religious contents, myth expresses a sense of mystery and awe in confronting the human condition. A culture deprived of myth becomes mired in mundane triviality. It loses, precisely, the “tragic sense of life”. One does not have to endorse some reactionary ideology in order to remember, and perhaps to feel again, a sad breeze through the olives trees.