Dance wth Death

On a layover in Barcelona many years ago I attended a bullfight that proved memorable for reasons that had little to do with what transpired in the ring. I had attended a few bullfights in Mexico several years earlier, and my reaction was no different this time: a kind of morbid fascination as the spectacle unfolded, like driving past a bloody car wreck on the highway. I knew nothing about bullfights but had already concluded this was not a sporting event in the usual sense; it was rather some strange blood ritual. On this particular occasion, the ritual ended badly. The matador failed to drive his sword cleanly between the shoulder blades of the bull to kill it. The matador tried again and again with no better result. The crowd howled in derision and began tossing their seat cushions into the ring as the matador’s clumsy butchery continued. The scene grew ugly fast. A phalanx of green-uniformed Guardia Civil members suddenly swept down through the stands, beating spectators with rubber truncheons. Generalissimo Franco was still in power in those days, and the Guardia Civil lurked in every public venue. My companion and I quickly got the hell out of there and were gone from Spain by the next day, having glimpsed all we wanted to of fascism in action.

This long-ago episode came to mind when I read that bullfighting has been banned by the local parliament in Catalonia, where Barcelona is located. In response, lawmakers in Madrid and Valencia declared bullfighting to be a protected cultural asset, which may have been prompted in part by long-simmering regional tensions. The fact is that bullfighting’s popularity has been on the wane for years in Spain, and it is no longer broadcast on TV there. It has not helped that bullfighting is closely associated with the Franco regime, which embraced it as a national tradition. Animal rights activists now denounce it as a blood sport even in Spain. Bullfighting’s defenders counter that it is not a sport at all but an art form revered by such cultural icons as Goya, Picasso and Federico Garcia Lorca, perhaps Spain’s greatest and most beloved poet.

It is no small irony that Lorca, who shared Franco’s view that bullfighting was a national treasure, was murdered by Franco loyalists in 1936, soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Lorca had written that the bullfight was “an authentic religious drama, where in the same manner as in the Mass, a God is sacrificed to, and adored.” This is no doubt true, yet the best illustration is not Christianity but Mithraism, a Roman mystery religion that flourished throughout the Mediterranean world in the early centuries of the Christian era. The god Mithra, derived from ancient Greek and Persian antecedents, was usually depicted sacrificing a sacred bull. For Lorca, the act of killing the bull, when artfully executed, was a pure expression of the duende, a dark quickening of the soul that also animated the best flamenco singers and poets. The duende is an elemental spirit, more closely aligned with the earth than with anything connected to an angel or muse. There is more than a hint of danger in this. The artistry of the bullfight cannot be realized without the matador placing himself in mortal peril. “With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit,” Lorca wrote. Metaphorically, if not literally, the duende plays itself out as an intricate dance with death.

“Spain is the only country where death is a national spectacle,” Lorca maintained. It was also his private obsession. The surrealist painter Salvador Dali, a close friend in his youth, remembered the subject was never far from his thoughts. “Almost always he came around to discussing death and especially his own death,” Dali said. It was the theme of his greatest poem, “Lament for the Death of a Bullfighter,” a tribute to his friend Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, who died of gangrene after being gored by a bull. Meijas was killed in 1934, having attempted to return to the bullring after seven years in retirement. ''Ignacio's death is like mine,” Lorca commented, “the trial run for mine.'' He said Mejias had done everything he could to escape his fate “but everything he did only helped to tighten the strings of the net.'' Lorca addressed his own fate in a poem entitled "The Fable And Round Of The Three Friends" that begins with the question, “How do you execute a poet?” and ends with these lines:

Then I realized I had been murdered.
They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches
.... but they did not find me.
They never found me?
No. They never found me.

Not long before he was killed, Lorca, who was a playwright as well as a poet, was touring outlying provinces with a theater company. He later told his friend Pablo Neruda that he had been unable to sleep one night and had gone for a walk in the moonlight. He came upon an ancient ruin in the mist and was horrified to see a lamb being torn apart by wild pigs. Neruda saw this as a bad omen. When hostilities broke out between Franco’s troops and the Republican government, Lorca’s friends begged him not to return to his family home in Granada, which was controlled by fascists. He ignored their warnings. Granada’s Socialist mayor, who was Lorca’s brother-in-law, was killed, and his body was dragged through the streets. A few days later they came for him. Lorca was executed along with an elderly schoolteacher and two anarchists, both banderillas in the bullring. His body was dumped in an unmarked grave. No reason was ever given for Lorca’s execution. He did not consider himself political, and his friends included Franco supporters. Perhaps it was enough that he was a poet; in any case, his works were banned in his homeland until the 1950s. In recent years, an effort was made to locate his grave. But just as he foretold in his poem, his remains have never been found.

Federico García Lorca, “Theory and Play Of The Duende,” translated by A. S. Kline
Noel Cross, Archetypal Imagination

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