My talk on Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s of Oxford on Thursday at 7pm

On Thursday, February 9th, at 7pm I will be giving a talk on my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, Oxford. Tickets are free and are available by calling 01865 333623.

Putting to one side the articles in the Oxford Times and Oxford Mail, which discuss an apparently needless postponement of the talk – Blackwell’s effectively caved into complaints and then misrepresented them to me as messages of a threatening nature so I would agree – it is still worth clarifying one point of fundamental importance. Into The Arena is not a piece of pro-bullfighting propaganda. And it’s not just me saying that. Here’s what the press said:

Shortlisted for

*****

Fiske-Harrison’s argument that the interplay between man and bull, when done with the highest skill, merits the tragedy will not convince many readers. But his descriptions of the fights are compelling and lyrical, and his explanation of different uses of the matador’s capes is illuminating. One begins to understand what has captivated Spaniards for centuries. This complex and ambitious book examines not only life in the bullring but also Spain’s cultural identity and modern ideas of masculinity. Fiske-Harrison admits that with each of his fights he knows more, not less fear. When he kills his first and only bull he feels not triumph but overwhelming sadness for a life take.

Provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”…brilliantly capturing a fascinating, intoxicating culture.

Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through. But this remains a compelling read, unusual for its genre, exalting the bullfight as pure theatre.

Fiske-Harrison did not expect to fall in love with bullfighting when he saw it for the first time in 2000. A philosophy student and member of the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, he would argue with his brother about animal cruelty. But then he travelled to Seville and had his eyes opened by the beauty, dignity and art of the sport. Fiske-Harrison recounts his year spent studying the matadors, breeders, fans and the bulls themselves, set against the backdrop of the campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalonia.

Others have been there before, not least Ernest Hemingway, the 50th anniversary of whose death neatly coincides with this travelogue. Hemingway concluded that bullfighting was ‘moral’ as it gave him a ‘feeling of life, death and mortality’. Fiske-Harrison comes to much the same conclusion, albeit after considerable soul-searching… He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it…

This is an informed piece of work on a subject about which we are all expected to have a view. But what I really enjoyed about Into The Arena is that after nearly 300 pages I still couldn’t quite decide whether bullfighting should be banned or allowed to flourish.”

It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting; the book is at its strongest when he uses his degree in biology to investigate the cruelty question… Into the Arena is full of intriguing detail… an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. Continue reading

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The Uses of Cruelty and the “Gentling Effect”

“The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us.”
Literary Review, August 1st, 2011

“It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never quite gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting.”
Financial Times, June 4th, 2011

“He develops a taste for the whole gruesome spectacle, but what makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it.”
Daily Mail, May 26th, 2011

As I got on the plane to the Roman coliseum at Nîmes in France to see the greatest living bullfighter, José Tomás, on Sunday, September 18th, the idea of cruelty was foremost on my mind for obvious reasons. The gladiatorial arena is the birth place of the bullfight, whatever other historical traditions may have partly inspired it or later imposed themselves and moulded it – Minoan bull-dancers, Carthaginian marriage rituals, Mithraic initiation rites, the knightly joust, the circus, flamenco, ballet and the theatre. The gladiator is he who wields the gladius, the ‘sword’. The old name for a matador, ‘killer’, is espada or sword.

(All photos are mine from that day unless otherwise marked.)

Continue reading

Is bullfighting an art?

Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez in Sanlucar de Barrameda in 2009 by Nicolás Haro

In last weekend’s Sunday Times there is a review of my book, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight (which can be purchased at Amazon by clicking here) which, although largely positive, has two main criticisms.

The first, a minor one, is that the author is too self-regarding. I can’t really protest against this on pain of self-contradiction, and my only response is to say that the bullfight is, as I argue below, all about the emotion it inspires in both bullfighter and the audience. Since I play both of those roles at different points in the book, I have no choice but to describe who I am so the reader can try to triangulate what sort of emotions it might inspire in them.

His second, more serious criticism is two-pronged: he finds my apparent conversion from journalist to aficionado, and then beyond that to practioner, repellent, and this is made worse by the fact that he finds my justifications given in defence of bullfighting fatuous. The funny thing is, the review in the usually much more sentimental and emotional Daily Mail says that what makes my book readable is that I manage to maintain my “disgust “for the bullfight throughout the book.

So what is the truth? Am I in love with the bullfight, or in hate? The answer is both, at different times, and sometimes with such a quick turnaround between them that they seem to overlap. However, there is one thing I am not, and that is someone who would unprotestingly allow any law to be passed to ban it. The primary reason is because politically I am a liberal. The secondary one is that I believe bullfighting can be justified, even if the justification will not convince everyone all of the time (and that includes me.) The justification I phrased best in the Prospect magazine article which led to the book:

Whether or not the artistic quality of the bullfight outweighs the moral question of the animals’ suffering is something that each person must decide for themselves – as they must decide whether the taste of a steak justifies the death of a cow. But if we ignore the possibility that one does outweigh the other, we fall foul of the charge of self-deceit and incoherence in our dealings with animals.

This is what has given me the title of this blog post. I believe that the bullfight does have an artistic quality, in fact, that can be an art in its own right. Now, I am aware that a large number of people, including the Sunday Times reviewer, think that even if it is an art-form, it could not possibly be justified on that basis. In fact, one journalist for the BBC – our national television network that has a state-enforced monopoly largely to guarantee the impartiality of its journalism – whom I approached on the subject, put his views even more strongly in an email to me.

Dear Xander,

Thanks so much for the invitation. I do have a passing interest in the subject – nothing quite cheers up my morning like reading in the paper that some matador or another has been gored to death by one of the bulls he was proposing to kill. It’s sort of like a man-bites-dog story, but with an added moral twist. But most of the time, I’m more interested in sports stories where both participants have volunteered to take part, and where one of the parties hasn’t been deliberately hobbled by minions sticking spears in them beforehand. Come to think of it, I guess you could see it as appreciating the rules of fair-play they instill at Eton.

Ole… Continue reading

Book Out Now.

The book which grew out of this blog, Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight is out now at all major British bookstores. Click here to purchase at Amazon.

The first review cane out in yesterday’s the Daily Mailclick here to read it. Positive, and surprisingly balanced for that newspaper, what I enjoyed most was that the print copy claimed to have a photograph of the author. When I looked, what I found instead was a photograph of the spectularly famous matador, and face of Armani Spain, Cayetano Rivera Ordóñez. (When I told him this, all he could do was laugh.)

Alexander Fiske-Harrison