For Whom the Bull Tolls
Ernest Hemingway’s love of bullfighting bordered on obsession. Did he see his own insecurities reflected in the ring?
Though he spoke lovingly, even tenderly of bulls, he described their deaths in tones of ecstatic fervour. For those who enjoy his writing, his delight is unsettling; for those who regard the corrida as inhumane, it is shocking. Yet Hemingway’s relationship with bulls is more complex – and psychologically revealing – than may first appear.
It is a historical fallacy to speak of fate, of course; but to say that Hemingway was destined to adore bullfighting is not to venture too far from the truth. Though a somewhat sickly child, he heard the call of the wild at an early age. His father taught him to hunt and fish in the hills of Northern Michigan; and with that combination of cruelty and tenderness characteristic of hard, uncertain men, he kindled in the young Ernest a reverence for ‘toughness’ and a yearning for danger.
Long before Ernest saw a corrida, his imagination was in thrall to it. After distinguishing himself as an ambulance driver in the First World War, he moved to Paris, hoping to launch his literary career. It was there, in the company of Gertrude Stein, that he first heard of bullfighting – and was so captivated that, without knowing anything more, he wrote an article on the subject.
In bullfighting, he found an answer to his prayers. Up until then, he had been struggling with his writing. He knew that, if he were to succeed, he needed to master the ‘simplest things’ – of which ‘the simplest ... and the most fundamental’ was ‘violent death’, in which was distilled the very essence of life. During the war, he had seen it only too often; but now that Europe was at peace, he realised that the only place he could see it was in a corrida.
Desperate to see a bullfight for himself, Hemingway arranged to travel to Spain with a group of friends in the spring of 1923. Setting out a little before the others, he and Robert McAlmon arrived in Madrid at noon on 27 May and went to see a bullfight that same afternoon. As he later recalled, it was neither the best time of the season, nor the best place to see his first corrida. The bulls failed to impress the critics; the matadors were off their game; and the killing was often mishandled. But to Hemingway, it was a revelation. As he watched the matador Chicuelo walking away, proud and glistening with sweat, he knew that he ‘loved it’.
Writing many years later, he remarked that, by then, bullfighting was already ‘in its decadence’. Most likely prehistoric in origin, it had been born in the rough society of the plains. Despite repeated attempts at suppression by Roman occupiers, Arab invaders and Bourbon kings, it had been sustained above all by the savage stubbornness of common folk. As amusement, it was crude – little more than a trial of strength between man and beast. There had been no rules, no rituals; and those who tried to prove themselves were often killed. Only in the late 18th century did its character change. As urbanisation gathered pace, the city became its established home; and, as the Enlightenment had taken hold, the theatrically minded Joaquín Rodríguez Costillares (1743-1800) had introduced not only the traje de luces (‘suit of lights’) that were to become the matador’s established uniform, but also a series of dramatic cape movements, known as veronicas, that shifted the emphasis from brute force to skill.
Bulls changed, too. Having once been mere cattle, they were now bred for the ring. The better to display their skill, matadors demanded faster, more aggressive bulls. Their hind quarters had to be strong, their eyes quick and their horns sharp. They needed to have a good hump of muscle behind the head that would rise up whenever the bull was angered. Character was key, too. If they were brave, they would charge straight – but if not, they would weave to and fro. They were generally tested at about two years old; but after that, ‘the contacts with men … are held to an absolute minimum’ to ensure that they would be as ‘wild’ as possible.
The trick – Hemingway explained in Death in the Afternoon – was for the matador to expose himself to as much danger as he dared and to kill the bull from as close up as possible. The structure of the bullfight was designed to help him do this. In the first tercio, pics are driven into the bull’s hump to tire the muscle; in the second, banderillas – barbed sticks – are driven into the flesh to enrage the animal; and in the final act, the matador brings the bull under control with a series of passes with his cape, before leaning over its horns and stabbing it in the heart.
By the 1920s, however, the artistry of the bullfight had become an end in itself. Yet in calling this ‘decadence’ Hemingway implied no criticism. In exalting artistry, aficionados of the corrida were not abandoning the traditional element of risk, but elevating it to the status of an ideal. Matadors like Juan Belmonte – still regarded by some as the greatest of all time – competed to bring the bull as close to their bodies as possible and to adopt ever more dangerous stances. Their movements had become almost balletic. Capes were moved, as far as possible, with the wrist alone, so as to sweep in elegant arcs; the banderillas were placed precisely; the sword driven home cleanly. And valentía (bravery) was their constant refrain.
Over the next five years, Hemingway immersed himself in the world of bullfighting. He often travelled to Spain for the ‘season’ and consumed bullfighting magazines with greedy fascination. In bars, he struck up friendships with many leading matadors and became an expert judge of technique. According to the American bullfighter Sidney Franklin, few could match his knowledge or passion. Most of all, he became a connoisseur of bulls. Having visited countless breeders, he could tell whether a bull would be courageous or cowardly, quick or lame. And he cherished the names of some in memory: Comisario, Oficial, Hechicero and Vibora, which ‘jumped the barrera and gored the bull ring carpenter’.
It is not easy to say why bullfighting appealed to Hemingway so much. But in no sense was it because he enjoyed seeing bulls suffer. One possible reason is to be found in the decadence of the corrida itself. Far more than the rough village bullfighters of yore, a matador like Belmonte embodied all of the qualities that Hemingway esteemed most highly – all the values he most wished to see in himself. The matador was artistic, yet did not pursue his artistry for its own sake. His art – like that of Goya – lay in a barely concealed toughness, a brooding masculinity, a defiance of danger. There was nothing false about him. As Hemingway put it, he was entirely ‘true’. In risking his life in the ring, he embodied the essence of the human condition; yet in defeating the bull, he simultaneously rose above it, defeating death itself.
Such an idealised view of the matador rested on a profound – if paradoxical – respect for the bull. Had the bull been cowardly, tame and gentle, the corrida would have been nothing more than an empty spectacle, a pointless pageant of cruelty. Its life would have had no purpose and its death – accomplished without need of artistry or skill – conferred no glory. Yet precisely because the bull was courageous, wild and dangerous, the corrida was transformed into the most immortal of tragedies.
There is, however, another reason for Hemingway’s love of bullfighting. Although he often portrayed the matador as the acme of his ideals, he may also have seen in the bull a solution to his fears.
Hemingway was tormented by profound insecurities. Beneath his reverence for toughness and courage there lurked doubts over his manliness and worth. In The Sun Also Rises, these are on full display. Of the group travelling to Pamplona, most are pitiful failures. Mike is a bankrupt; Robert Cohn is a directionless divorcé; and Jake Barnes – Hemingway’s alter ego – is a struggling writer with an ambiguous war injury which seems to prevent him from having sex. They are all in love with Lady Brett Ashley, who welcomes both Cohn and Mike into her bed, but who eventually gives herself entirely to the matador Pedro Romano. Inevitably, tensions arise – which Jake tries, but fails, to defuse. Increasingly isolated, Cohn, a boxer, knocks Mike and Jake down in a café; and, after a furious argument, beats Pedro Romano to a pulp – only to be humiliated when the matador refuses to kill him in revenge. Meanwhile, in the background, the running of the bulls is taking place. As always, it is a violent affair. Whenever a single bull was separated from the herd it would gore people. To prevent this, steers – castrated bulls – were brought in to keep them calm and prepare the most suitable for the corrida. The parallels hardly need stressing. Most of Hemingway’s group are like the bulls; Cohn ‘gores’ people when excluded from the group, only to be denied a noble death; Jake, who never sleeps with Brett, is a steer. As such Hemingway reveals Jake to be the epitome of all his fears (emasculation, cowardice) – and a reflection of his worry that he would never be worthy of the noble death befitting a ‘true’ bull.
Such fears tormented Hemingway to the very end of his life. After being seriously injured in two plane crashes in Africa, he found it increasingly difficult to write. Suffering from depression, which neither the Nobel Prize nor electroshock therapy could alleviate, he sank into alcoholism. Faced with a long, painful decline, he committed suicide in 1961 – a hapless steer, yearning to die like a raging bull.
Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick. His latest book is Machiavelli: His Life and Times (Picador, 2020).