man and bull

I have two all-time favourite jokes.

The first is: Why did the girl fall off the swing? Because she had no arms.

The other one is this: A wealthy businessman visits Barcelona. In an expensive restaurant next to the bullring, he asks for the chef’s speciality. “Si, Senor!” says the waiter, and brings him two large, slightly salty spheres in broth, explaining that they are the testicles of the bull killed in that afternoon’s bullfight. The businessman is a little disgusted at first, but eats them anyway – and they are delicious.

A few months later the businessman visits Barcelona again, goes to the restaurant and asks for the chef’s speciality again. “Si, Senor!” exclaims the waiter, and brings him two bull’s testicles which are even larger and more delicious than the previous time.

A few months later he visits Barcelona again, goes to the same restaurant and orders the chef’s speciality with great excitement. But this time the waiter brings him a bowl in which the testicles are much smaller and more bitter than before. “Waiter!” the businessman asks, “What is going on here?”

“Ah, Senor,” says the waiter, “The bull – he does not always lose.”

This joke is perfect in every possible way: it has cultural stereotypes, genitals, a perfect rule of three, and a wealthy businessman gets his comeuppance.

Now I’m going to have to bloody change it, because of this campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalunya, which is what this blog is really about.

The thing is, it’s a great thing for Catalan independence, which I am wholeheartedly in favour of. But I’d have a lot more respect for the whole thing if they just said they want to signify a rejection of traditional Spanish customs, and stopped pretending that it’s anything to do with animal welfare.

Very few people really give a crap about animals; bovines in particular. The fact that the Catalan campaign has used all kinds of emotive language about ‘the distress that the bulls suffer’, or ‘how terrible it is that up to six bulls can be killed in an afternoon’, is incredibly annoying given how few of the assembly members who passed the motion yesterday are actually likely to be vegetarians.

And bullfighting – or corrida, to give it its proper name – is, I think, more respectable, more honest and more beautiful than eating meat.

I’m not criticizing meat-eating; I’m not even a vegetarian. Although I used to be one – kept it up for six years, in fact – and I learned two very useful pieces of information from it:

1) humans don’t need to eat meat to survive or be healthy. Quite the opposite in fact – we’re not really evolved for it the way lions or tigers are (lions have intestinal tracts which are relatively short, to quickly get rid of rotting meat; whereas humans, like other herbivores, have intestines which are much much longer in order to get as many nutrients as possible out of fruit and nuts etc.) No, we do it purely because it’s enjoyable. And BOY, is it enjoyable! I made a really delicious pasta bolognese last night. Mmmmm.

2) Unless you rear and slaughter the animals yourself, as humanely as you possibly can, it’s very likely that the animals you’re eating have suffered pretty horrible, torturous, and mercifully short lives. Cows often live in pretty cramped conditions and then go to slaughter on cattle production lines, where each animal gets an electric shock which, if it’s lucky, will numb it (though this doesn’t always work) and if it doesn’t fully work it has to watch the animals in front of it get their arteries cut. Then it is killed itself.

Which means that an honest carnivore, like I try to be, ought to never forget that they are causing plenty of suffering and death to animals, purely for our own pleasure.

For me, this is not so hard to live with; I am unashamedly what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesist‘. Singer uses the term in a derogatory way, but I do think humans are better than cows. We – or at least, most of us – are smarter, more resourceful, we have an ability to use conceptual reasoning, a sense of aesthetic value, and the ability to understand ourselves as conscious beings in time who project ourselves from our past towards hopes and aspirations in the future. If you killed and ate a human, you would be taking away its chances of living out its creative projects and its aspirations; the things that give our lives meaning. Whereas the only hopes and aspirations that a cow has for its future is to have another munch on its breakfast. And to be honest, it probably doesn’t even think very much about that until it actually happens.

So I can face the idea of eating cows, or pigs or sheep for that matter, without feeling too bad about it. They’re idiots. But it doesn’t mean they won’t suffer and then die, purely for my culinary entertainment.

But most meat-eaters, in towns and cities at least, seem to be in denial about this; for most of them, it’s as if the meat they’re eating has come magically out of the ground or a factory or tesco’s, and they are able to eat their meat, which they regard as necessary, without thinking at all about what was involved in its production. And as long as they don’t see the suffering they can pretend it’s not happening.

I suspect the main reason the corrida is so unpopular, at least among carnivores, is that in the bullfight there is no such self-denial about the suffering of the animal.

But the corrida goes further: in bullfighting, both the toro and the toreador are celebrated – almost deified – for their elegance and strength in the way they look death and pain full in the face, and still carry on fighting for life.

In fact, I think the two most important things that the corrida has that carnivorism doesn’t are that firstly, in bullfighting suffering and pain and death are acknowledged not just as necessary conditions of life, but as actually having the potential to be an aesthetic experience; they are elevated to the level of high art (as opposed to the mere industrial functionality of the slaughterhouse).

And secondly, in bullfighting the toro does actually stand a fighting chance, which it wouldn’t get in a slaughterhouse. Although I’d like to see it happen: if every animal had to be killed in person by a slaughterman with sword. And any time the cow doesn’t lose, somebody ordering a Big Mac has to eat a slaughterman’s balls.

Anyway. Like all good jokes, and particularly the jokes I started the blog with, bullfighting is honest and admirable because it does not shy away from suffering, does not deny it. The girl fell of the swing because she has no arms! When you think about it, this is an awful thing to happen. But we laugh because we do not deny its awfulness; we affirm it, we are grateful that the girl is not us, and laughing helps us cope with the fact that perhaps it could have been. Equally, when the toreador is gored as he makes the killer blow, we stare in fear and horror – but fans of the corrida do not look away. They watch because they understand that they are mortal and they can suffer too; they are grateful that today, the suffering is not theirs. The experience is life-affirming.

Well, not in Barcelona any more. Which is fine; some places don’t need bullfighting to affirm life (in England, for example, we have cricket instead – that is warfare enough for our temperament). Barcelona doesn’t need it either; it’s a Spanish interest and Catalunya is not Spain.

But banning it under the pretense that they are somehow acting ‘morally’, in the interests of the animals? In politics too, the bull (in both senses of that word) does not always lose.



  1. like your thinking

    • i think it’s probably just a mush of the thinking of hemingway, nietzsche and companys… 🙂

  2. I think fans of Hemingway will always find the beauty in this spectacle, but I for one, am glad it is on the way out.

    I heard someone on Jeremy Vine’s show yesterday talking about how people fool themselves into anthropomorphising the creatures, projecting a human suffering onto them. Then he went on about how bullfighting is essentially an artform, that it was about life, and facing death and all that, which is weird because I would have expected bulls to know a bit more about pain than existentialism.

    I concurr that an anti-Spanish thinking may have brought this about where years of animal rights campaigning failed, but in this country, it was the brief rise of socialist optimism and anti-elitism that helped bring about an end to foxhunting… oh well, if it gets the same results, all to the good.

    We got rid of public executions… and whatever your thoughts on capital punishment, it is quite sick to think that within the last 200 years, death was made to be a public spectacle. It was meant to act as a deterrent against crime, but encouraged Schadenfreude.

    Schadenfreude is not my favourite Germanic word. That would be Unheimlichkeit.

    By the way, you’re not a carnivore, you’re an omnivore – and it’s perfectly okay to eat meat, so long as you don’t eat in waste (I very much doubt you do!). I despair of my OH’s weakness for KFC, not only because I think their food is overrated, but because I don’t think KFC are terribly into respecting the food they produce.

    Cookery – now that’s an art… sourcing the meat from a reliable, sustainable source, selecting the cut, matching it with wonderful , seasonal veggies, cooking it nicely (do I sound like Prince Charles, yet?). If the animal is to give its life, it deserves respect, I think, and let that sacrifice be for some practical purpose. To kill a bull in a fight is to repeat a known image – surely the power of that as an art is too diminished anyway, particularly in the face of so many feelings of revulsion?

    Anyway, I’m off to The Wild Garlic next week. Nom nom nom.

    • Hello Donna!

      Ooh, a debate. 🙂

      You’re quite right, I’m an omnivore. Doh. And I also agree that animals who die for our enjoyment deserve respect (although if I were a cow, I’m not sure I’d agree that people devouring my corpse was particularly respectful, even if they do serve it with the right seasonal vegetables).

      I think I made pretty clear why killing of a bull (which has no real conceptualisation of it’s own futurity) is nothing like killing a human (which does), though, so the point about public executions isn’t really a fair analogy.

      My main point was just that either you consider it intolerable for animals to suffer and die for the sake of human pleasure, in which case you need to live as a vegan in order to be consistent (and I have a lot of respect for this position); or, like me, you don’t really have a problem with it, in which case it’s hypocritical to criticise bullfighting on ‘moral’ grounds.

      You can always say it’s not to your taste, of course. I mean, I don’t really like rugby…

      I wish I was going to the Wild Garlic, though. I really liked that guy on masterchef


    • Oh! Also, more importantly than all this debatey banter, I’ve just arrived at my mum’s house in Northampton and need to find something to do this evening, otherwise I will just spend the entire evening on the internet. Any recommendations?


      • Er – text me for suggestions in case I don’t come back online until 11pm!

        If you are hanging around this weekend, the Fishmarket has a daytime gig tomorrow with Gregg Cave.

        Go and see the lions.

        Also, you know Gemma? She’s in this open air production of Comedy of Errors – last night tomorrow. And there’s an opening night gig at Revolver with Pat Fish, or Lightning Joe at the Vic (they are bloody loud!)

        Interesting discussion on anthropormorphism here:

        In fact, my friend, Ian Watson, has written a short story about humans that stems in part from a story like Gana’s.

  3. I used to love the taste of pig.

    If pigs were smarter than you suppose would you stop eating them? Do you have the courage to find out? It may put you off your bacon butties.

    Regardless of this, all those qualities that you state make us humans special are perhaps why we shouldn’t treat animals this way. Particularly for fleeting pleasure. We are animals, just as they are, only on the sliding scale of animal intelligence we are at the top. Where are you drawing your line for acceptable meals? For example if pigs had sense of “futurism” would you stop eating them? Do you have the courage to find out? It may put you off gamon steak.

    Finally, think of a highly developed alien species who breeds and eats us because our flesh is delicious. The could eat a number of other things but chose to eat us. Their justification being that our sense of conciousness isn’t worth a damn in comparison to theirs. These aren’t the actions of morale beings.

    Death in the Afternoon is my favourite book of all time. Just so you know.

    • …And if a pig could speak, could a lion understand it?

      If I knew that I was depriving a pig of a fully-conceptualised desire to fulfill an ambition, I don’t know if I’d be strong enough to eat it. I don’t think I would. So maybe it’s not so much a question of morality but of being strong enough to silence your guilt for just long enough to live out your desires. But that’s not easy – there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t do, not because I think they’re ‘morally’ wrong but because I know I’m too weak to deal with the suffering it would cause. But I think it’s important to be honest about that.

      Perhaps there’s a sliding scale not just of animal intelligence and consciousness, but of animal strength of will and conscience. If these aliens are both uber-intelligent and hard enough to eat my flesh knowing exactly what my feelings would be about it, then I guess i’d have to put my hands up and say they’re stronger than me, rub some seasoning into my skin, and be grateful that at least i’m delicious. There’s no need for uber-intelligent aliens to be moral – morality is only a human condition, after all…


    If you are saying that you’ll eat your bacon sandwich no matter what, because it’s delicious, then I can understand your point. But if you are taking any kind of moral approach to the subject I think you have an obligation to look into the participants involved. Just because they’re not human doesn’t seem like a good enough justification. It’s the wimpy cousin of “just because they’re not men/not white/not Christian” etc. Further research is particularly important (certainly the pigs!) now you’ve said there are circumstances which may make you give up pig.

    For example, I’ll be interested to know what your opinion of what “fully conceptualised” is. Just so long as “fully” doesn’t mean human. How conceptualised does that thing have to be before it’s more important than your crispy rasher?

    I have not fucked a pig. I want that to be absolutely clear.

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