I am squeamish. When I was six, I stood next to my 5-foot tall Norwegian grandmother as she grabbed, throttled, and cut off the head of her chicken dinner that night. I chose to go without dinner. Since then, getting up close and personal with blood and guts is not my cup of anything.
Thirty years later, my husband and I were in Seville, Spain, the heart of bullfighting country. We were regular speakers at a traveling international medical conference where the focus was on creativity (or madness) of art and artists. For fifteen years, we had been presenters around the world. For example, we presented in South America about Salvador Dali, in Australia about the creativity of Abraham Maslow, and in London about Winston Churchill’s late life painting career.
When we were deciding on a topic for the Seville conference, the human genome project had just announced the identification of a new gene related to extreme behavior. Our title leaped at us: Does the Bullfighter Fight Because of the Thrill-Seeking Gene?
Researching what little was known about the Thrill-Seeking Gene (TSG) was exciting as new findings seemed to appear every day. We also studied the history of bullfighting, learning more about the richness of the culture and religious aspects surrounding it. Studying these details, as well as the specifics of the ring was fascinating.
Education can do wonders. The more I read, learned, and considered, the less absolute I became about the horrors of bullfighting. To my amazement, my squeamish reaction over the brutality of it all diminished a bit. It was my idea to teach the members of our audience the etiquette of attending a bullfight—and to take them to the ring!
Our presentation covered much ground about the TSG and bull fighting. We shared what we had learned about the newly discovered gene and how its presence appears to increase the tendencies toward risky behavior, e.g., bungee jumping, running with the bulls in Pamplona, skydiving, and swimming with sharks. Then we explored the historical aspects of bullfighting and its link to the Catholic religion that has dominated Spain for centuries. It’s been said that Spanish mother’s first want their boys to be priests. Almost as high on the career chain, however, is the honorable profession of matador. We described some of the star matadors, including a few females, who were like rock stars and had their own “groupies.”
Our audience was dubious about the practice of bullfighting. When we talked about the rules of the fight, the actions of the picadors (stabbing the bull repeatedly with picks to make him even more angry), and the end of it all, several in the audience had looks of definite distaste—and two left early. A few brightened a little when we told them that the meat was always distributed to the poor, but not much.
The way that Spaniards show their approval in the bullfighting arena is to throw up a white handkerchief when the toreador makes a good move. After a short lesson in proper bullfight etiquette, we passed out white hankies and invited the 150 physicians and spouses to join us that afternoon for the bullfight. Over half shook their heads and said a polite “No, thank you!” Several couldn’t make up their minds, but about 25 wanted to go.
If our procession didn’t carry a huge banner reading, “Silly Tourists,” it might as well have. Our seats were in the second row, up close and personal to where the action would be. We were all tense and chatted nervously in whispers while the rest of the audience whooped and hollered in anticipation.
The small band started playing and a parade of picadors, clowns, and finally the matador passed by our prime viewing station. Minutes later, the gate opened and out came the enraged beast, snorting, bucking, pawing the ground. There was the matador in beautiful costume and of course, the famous red cape. The bull charged; the matador dodged gracefully. The picadors did their work; the bull got madder and charged harder.
And then it was over. White hankies flew in the air including ours.
When the arena had cleared, we walked down into the large ring, to get a better view. In spite of the gore and the blood, I didn’t feel sick or disgusted. I felt that I had grown up a little. I was willing and able to understand the practices of a different culture, no matter how different from mine. I was less ignorant about an event that has meant so much to this country where we were guests.
As for Grandma, she group up in a culture where killing chickens for dinner was not only a respectable thing to do but a necessary one to feed the family.
Would I kill a chicken? Attend another bullfight? No. Will I speak more respectfully about cultural differences? I certainly hope so.