1. Parallels between writers and bullfighters
1.1 Lifestyle and social status
1.3 Religion, spirituality and superstition
1.4 Fascination with death
2. Bullfighting and writing as acts of control
3. The corrida and comprehension 23-
The coat of arms that is currently depicted on the Spanish flag may feature a lion as a heraldic animal, but during the past centuries of Iberian cultural history the taurine brute, especially the so-called Toro de Osborne (Brandes 780-781), has become the country’s unofficial, more popular and widely known trademark symbol (ibid.). This development is, of course, rooted in the nation’s continuous passion for the bullfight and along with the flamenco dance the custom performance of tauromachy remains a pillar of patriotic identity for many Spaniards. It comes as no surprise, then, that the corrida features heavily in a wide selection of publications of virtually all literary genres. Among the more recent works in this field, Alison Louise Kennedy’s On Bullfighting provides an introduction to the past and present of the tauromachy tradition and combines it with the Scottish novelist’s perspective on the act of literary composition as a non-fictional version of Kennedy narrates her progress in researching and writing about the corrida to the reader. The following pages explore how she establishes parallels between the routines, passions, and beliefs of the literary artist and the matador, respectively, and then uses them to underline how both are devoted to exerting and expanding a level of control in their approaches to life and work. For the writer, this is particularly relevant with regards to his or her handling of inspiration and its implementation in the written word and the paper therefore closes with remarks on whether or not On Bullfighting's A. L. Kennedy succeeds in regaining her authoritative power over both aspects of her profession as she struggles through depression and a severe writer’s block connected to past emotional trauma.
1. Parallels between writers and bullfighters 1.1 Lifestyle and social status
One of the first and most obvious parallels between the matador and the writer, as presented in On Bullfighting, stems from A. L. Kennedy’s comparative description of their respective lifestyles and the tolls they take outside of the glamorous looking world that the public is privy to. Predictably, these incidents of being caught in the limelight, though without a doubt part of their working routine, spread only a warped common perception of the two professions. Everything a reader knows about the author of his favourite novels is usually based on what agents and publishers deem worthy of sharing, the rare occasions on which he might attend a promotional event like readings or panel discussions, and trifling or heavily edited interviews (Neagu 123) and internet statements. The days when the successive steps of planning, researching, writing, revising and eventually submitting a manuscript to their publishing company comprised the tasks of those intending to live off their writing are long over. As part of a multimedia-based society and with the increased competitiveness and commercialization of the book market left to consider, novelists cannot expect to simply let their words speak for themselves. Entire marketing departments focus on devising elaborate strategies to boost a publication’s sales figures and many of them include the participation of the literary figure responsible for its existence. (Neagu 121)
The book’s Alison Kennedy hints at this particular component of her occupation by referring to the amount of travelling she is expected to do. (Bullfighting 17) Her visit to Spain is, of course, preliminary work for a book not yet written, but the narrator is familiar with other aspects of the “travelling writer” (Kennedy: Bullfighting 26) life as well. She knows from experience that significant amounts of time are spend on the road, boarding planes and trains, driving from one city or state to the next, until “they all seem to form a fragmented nation, spattered around the globe in unpleasant instalments.” (Kennedy: Bullfighting 17) Discussing her impressions in an interview for the Scottish Studies Review, the author of On Bullfighting once likened her position to that of someone hired to play a role and amuse the audience. (Neagu 111) Putting themselves in front of the public eye like that can go against what those inclined to express themselves in the written language consider familiar and comfortable.
There is an acknowledgement that it’s very unpleasant to just bounce around the country, travelling, being tired, being dislocated, and having to present your work. Publishers... they’re not really geared up to support you, other than, you know, maybe doing something at the bookshop, but that’s about it, so you meet a lot of strangers. (Neagu 111)
The difference between the author and the torero in this context, then, derives from the proportional share in public performance acts required to earn a living in their specific careers. For the former the promotional element is a necessary evil, following only after the crucial work of composing pieces of poetry, fiction or literary non-fiction has been completed in private and on their own terms. But in the case of the matador it is solely the overtly execution of a national custom and the satisfaction of the audience in the span of a moment that fetches him his payment and reputation. Additionally, the corrida and the establishment of a bullfighter as one of the celebrities of the business is even more of a group effort. It, too, entails hiring an agent ready to represent the aspiring hero of the arena (Kennedy: Bullfighting 73), but furthermore includes the employment of a crew known as the cuadrilla, consisting of assisting fighters, coaches, and other squad members meant to aid the torero before, during, and after his battle with the bull (ibid.).
Nevertheless, despite the size of his professional support system, the full schedule of his existence in and outside of the ring always has an impact on the individual bullfighter. These men have to function well on little sleep, mainly at the beginning of their climb up the ladder of social standing, when it is still essential to grasp every opportunity to present themselves to the aficionados and performing more than once every seven days is common. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 63) They fight with little or unhealthy forms of nutrition in their stomachs and physical reminders of the last encounter with a raging bull still fresh on their bodies. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 63) Even with contemporary medical care and supplies available at the arena, it remains possible for a matador to die from the injuries inflicted upon him during a tauromachy event. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 63-64) And if he manages to stay alive, the stressfulness of a life dominated by treks across the country, sensing the constant pressure of expectations and looming death, may lead those affected towards depression (Kennedy: Bullfighting 64, 77) and alcohol or drug abuse, resulting in an even unhealthier lifestyle (ibid. 11, 64). Although Kennedy never states it in plain terms, her troubles to find sleep at night (Bullfighting 20, 24, 81) and stomach food (ibid. 31, 67-68) could be at least partially a psychosomatic response to stress as well. A very physical reason for them (Kennedy: Bullfighting 23, 79) is related to the fact that she has “a displaced disk, high in [her] spine” (ibid. 18) and the circumstantiali- ties of said injury connect her to the corrida even further (ibid.). Yet the sheer amount of prescription drugs taken over the course of the book (Kennedy: Bullfighting 17, 42, 54, 68, 79, 132, 140) leaves room for the interpretation that she longs to numb more than the ache in her limbs. The writer is, after all, caught in a situation of great pressure, too. Not being able to write has the narrator pondering suicide at the beginning of On Bullfighting (Kennedy: 1-3) and therefore puts the end of a career in the field of literature in close proximity to physical death. And on top of that every man or woman in A. L. Kennedy’s position has expectations other than their own to meet and a publishing company to think of even before there is the reaction of the audience and a critical response to deal with.
Successful authors, who maintain their productivity, often enjoy a privileged social position and occasionally achieve the status of celebrities in the modern sense. The fame of exceptionally well-regarded literary figures outlasts them and lives on long after their passing (Kennedy: Bullfighting 65), meaning the works of subsequent generations of writers tend to be gauged by comparing them to these icons and their legacies. Kennedy looks at Federico García Lorca as such an immortal master of his craft. She admires him and his talent enough to travel to the house the poet used to live in and touch the things he must have touched. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 64-66) Surrounded by mementos of the Spaniard’s life and passion, the contemporary Scottish novelist feels small and like a failure compared to the man she treats like a patron saint of conflicted artists. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 34-37, 64-66) Similar dynamics of admiration and idolization have come to influence the corrida as well. The rise of the torero as a man of great public repute began in the 18th century. (Zanardi 201) Initially the bullfight had been reserved for those of noble birth, but the reign of the Bourbons was accompanied by increasing royal disinterest in tauromachy and hence opened it up to the participation of matadors from humbler social stations. (Zanardi 204-206) In the following years the bullfight underwent a complete makeover at the hands of primarily the plebeians; it provided a means for them to rise in social position and gain access to elite circles where literary, artistic and theatrical celebrities mingled with intellectuals and nobles. (Zanardi 205)
Back then the spectators already loved the story of a lowly born hero, rising to a life of glory with nothing but bravery and skill on his hands. (Zanardi 200; Kennedy: Bullfighting 88) Triumphant toreros rose high in the affections of their fellow citizens and set off waves of patriotism. (Zanardi 201) General interest in them grew and involved all aspects of their existence, in and out of the arena. (Zanardi 209-210)
On Bullfighting stresses that to this day many corrida champions are brought into this world as members of the lower or middle social classes and ascent only if they prove themselves in battle with a taurine animal. (Kennedy: 62-63) What has changed, perhaps, is the extreme level of transformation experienced along with such a rise to “the life of a rock star, a latter-day prince” (Kennedy: Bullfighting 63) and the new comforts it offers in exchange for the risks of the profession (ibid. 62-63). A departure from everything they used to know so radical in nature can be difficult to adapt to. Fame and success are tied to new challenges of being considered public property, having sponsors and fans to appeal to. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 64, 72-73, 149, 159) Under such circumstances the corrida easily develops from a matter of doing what they adore into an act focused entirely on pleasing those who paid to see a fight. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 75-76) The audience can be fickle and what felt like honest support in one moment can turn to disappointment and extreme rejection again during the duration of a single tauromachy event. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 75-76) It is upon the matador to keep the spectacle exciting, to attract viewers willing to spend money on tickets or merchandise (Kennedy: Bullfighting 137) and make them come back for more all season (ibid. 63, 72-73, 124-125). Critics and fans judge their performances based on more than the outcome, whether or not the torero kills the bull (Leiris/Smock 24; T. Mitchell 396), and they repeatedly find themselves being compared to the boldness and style of past legends of the corrida (Kennedy: Bullfighting 72, 76).
In this sense A. L. Kennedy may speak of bullfighters and writers alike when she declares: “Be careful, as they say, of what you pray for - you might get it.” (Bullfighting 64) Entire generations of poets and novelists have been known to engage in substance abuse to cope with living the dream and not few of them died young, but naturally this does not stop others from working in the field of literature. In equal fashion, tauromachy continues to evolve as a business (Kennedy: Bullfighting 83; Brandes 780) and attracts new heroes of the arena even though the dark sides of the profession are known to both participants and spectators.
[Manolete’s] death was followed by a predictably hysterical outpouring of guilty mourning, the press and aficionados managing to be both self-righteous and self-flagellating as they blamed each other for the massive pressures under which he was expected to perform [...]. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 158-159)
Yet, despite such tragic landmarks in the history of the corrida, modern day toreros continue to fight because they have one more characteristic in common with the writer. With regards to doing what they love, they simply cannot help themselves.
Why is it that those professionally engaged in either literary production or tauromachy dedicate their lives so fervently to these occupations, knowing their career choice may very well ruin them in one way or another? The aforementioned Manuel Laureano Rodríguez Sánchez y Sánchez, alias Manolete, was past the point of wholeheartedly enjoying his profession and everything it entailed by the time a bull fatally wounded him, but the fact that he found solace and the courage to step into the ring only at the bottom of a bottle did not stop him from remaining an active part of the corrida circus. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 158) The reasons for such extreme devotion are manifold. On the practical level there is an awareness of this being their most well-trained skill, the only work they ever properly learned to do. Aspiring matadors begin to prepare themselves for a future in the Spanish arenas at a young age, often years before they reach manhood. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 62, 68-69, 149-50) And apart from spending years of their existence on climbing up the ranks of an old cultural institution that still does not treat all men equally (Kennedy: Bullfighting 74), these novices also must be willing to invest a fair share of money in advance (ibid. 73-74). As a result, many enter liabilities before they have earned any profits as bullfighters and are thus doomed to eventually succeed in the world of tauromachy, unless they have rich benefactors to rely on. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 7374) Those who received a first taste of fame and success quickly grow accustomed to it and since most of the lowly born champions also use their income to support family and friends (Kennedy: Bullfighting 68, 72-73) turning away from the corrida may feel like letting them down, too.
However, financial aspects and dreams of grandeur are not the only motivation. The matadors and writers in On Bullfighting chose their respective paths because they were deeply passionate about them and could not imagine doing anything else for the rests of their lives. Alison Kennedy mentions her “training and disposition” (Bullfighting 16) as an author as well, but considering that the book opens with the narrator wanting to jump out of an apartment window and to her death, as the inability to write has taken away her purpose in life (ibid. 1-3), it appears safe to say that it is more than an established means of earning her keeps. Her entire sense of self-worth is tied to the question of whether or not she can be productive: “I am a writer who doesn’t write and that makes me no one at all. I don’t look very different, but I have nothing of value inside.” (Kennedy: Bullfighting 3) The significance of her survival is degraded in similar fashion time and again (Bullfighting 36, 67, 100) and Kennedy makes a point of spelling it out for the reader that the direness of her depressive state does not change for the better in Spain (ibid. 147). Surrounded by and focused on death as a topic of her research, she thinks of Ernest Hemingway who took his own life after he realized that he could no longer work as an author (Kennedy: Bullfighting 37) and the Andalusian dramaturge Federico García Lorca who is generally perceived as having given his in the name of artistic freedom (ibid. 34). An emotional investment this deep, a willingness to offer literally everything one has to give on the altar of a labour of love, appears like a commitment unlike any other and the word used to describe it is vocation.
The term and its meaning are explained in On Bullfighting with the help of another example from literature. Kennedy uses a quotation by Russian physician and writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (Bullfighting 60) to illustrate how the whispers of an inner voice, a profound personal understanding, may inform the individual of its role in this world.
Chekhov is here because, paraphrasing his own youth or not, he’s summing up, as beautifully as we’d expect, the burn of self-perpetuating outrage that leads some individuals on to vocations, to larger-than-life lives, to fantasies fulfilled, transformative works and pyrotechnic extinctions: that leads them on to dreams and monuments. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 61)
And while these ideas echo the common, secular understanding of a vocation, the concept is traditionally ingrained in a religious context and entwined with the expectation that a spiritual power installs such a sense of clarity in those affected by its call and leads them on to a higher destiny. (“vocation”) Unsurprisingly, this typically implied religious or at least charitable work, the support of those less privileged or oppressed. (“vocation”) But nowadays the notion has become affiliated with perceptions of individual fate and forging one’s own path to self-assuredness and meaning in life. Going by these standards, it is easy to see how a writer would consider the act of composing pieces of literature his vocation as it leaves him filled with a sense of purpose, belonging and elation. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 40) Matadors happen to share a familiarity with this satisfying sensation as it “grants an access to self-forgetting without self-destruction, and it’s a moment that can seem worth almost any price, even the torero’s ultimate risk.” (Kennedy: Bullfighting 40) Alison Kennedy considers Federico García Lorca such “a man who was called to write” (Bullfighting 66) and supposedly never let anything come between him and his calling (ibid. 34). Not even when a price had been put on his head by Spain’s fascist regime and he must have known what it would cost him not to adapt his life and work to this reality. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 34-36, 59, 66)
Compared to his biography, the troubles the Scot is concerned with naturally appear smaller and less existential. They leave her wondering how she can let any of it, from the heartbreak over a past relationship (Kennedy: Bullfighting 92-93) and the grief following her grandfather’s death (ibid. 125-127) to her poor physical state (ibid. 3, 18-19), torment her to the point where it has become a crippling source of influence (ibid. 3).
I think of Lorca’s voice, its future stolen, the eloquence of his life removed by the standard totalitarian means. And, of course, I also think that if I had any backbone I would write as best I can, simply because I can, because of the silenced dead, because writing is a privilege and also a responsibility. (Kennedy: Bullfighting 36)
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- Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main – Institut für England- und Amerikastudien
- On Bullfighting A. L. Kennedy Tauromachy