The Plaza de Toros

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Bullfighting is a sport, an art, an entertainment…with a long history. We know nothing about its origins, but the lithe young bullfighters in the Plaza de Toros last night reminded us of the girls in ancient friezes of Crete. They seemed so light on their feet, so feminine in their comportment, so delicate…they looked like crystal ornaments – decked out in sequined brocades, shockingly bright silk, indiscreet colors, and little ballet slippers.

If you can believe the archeological evidence, the young females of Crete were an intrepid lot. They took the bulls by the horns…in order to leap over their backs. And last night too, the matadors leapt into the air right in front of the charging bull’s horns. As they stuck the poor animal with their banderillas, we felt 30 centuries vanish before our eyes. We looked around us. There, on the granite benches of the Plaza de las Ventas de la Espiritu Santo, was a crowd that might as well have been wearing togas and staring at bare-breasted maidens…or giving thumbs down to a gladiator, just before he cut off his opponent’s head.

You may wonder, dear reader, what this has to do with the world of money. We confess that we have no idea. Nor do we draw any moral lessons or impose any judgments on what we saw. We merely pass along the following account as it happened and leave you to take what you will from it.

The Plaza de Toros is built like a Roman coliseum…or a football stadium. It is constructed of granite, with benches of stone. Shrewd regulars rent cushions as they enter. Others wish they had. One side is in the shade. The other is in the sun. The people who rent cushions also know that you want to be on the shady side, partly because the sun is often very hot in Madrid…and partly because you can see better when the sun in at your back rather than in your eyes.

Around the top of the stadium are arcades done in a Moorish design, punctuated by a single dignified booth, reserved, we assume, for the royal family.

Down on the granite benches, people sit very close together. Indeed, we felt on quite intimate terms with the woman in front of us, so close was she nestled between our knees. And the man behind us held his chin so near our head, we had to be careful not to stand up…or sit down…too fast.

People crowded in after work, much as if they were going to a baseball game. But this was not like the uncouth mob at Camden Yards in Baltimore. These people were well dressed and middle-aged. No one wore shorts or tee shirts. Instead, many had on suits. Others sported handsome straw hats. There were no children – none. Nor was there any yelling from the crowd. When pleased, the spectators clapped. When disappointed, they sighed.

The ceremony began with trumpets and with a ride around the ring by two caballeros in bright red costumes. The rode at a measured pace and then disappeared behind the wooden wall that separated the inner ring…the bullfighting ring…from the service area.

Then, the trumpets sounded again. As the night darkened, we began to dread the trumpets. Each time they sounded, it meant that a bull moved closer to his death. The wooden doors opened and out came a big, brown-backed bull. The animal was pure hyperbole; a bull that would do justice to Merrill Lynch, with such huge shoulders and, in comparison, such tiny hindquarters that he could have been a cartoon from Disney. He looked around. He pranced. Then he saw the large fuchsia-colored capes that the matadors had hung round the edge of the ring to tempt him, and he charged one…sending its owner ducking behind a wooden doorway…and then another. Across the ring…this way…then that…snorting…pawing the ground. Master of the ring…but confused.

We do not know enough about bull fighting to critique the sport. But it began to seem a little one-sided.

Then, the horns sounded again. This time, two picadors, armed with long lances, and mounted on horses protected by tough padding, came into the ring, preceded by what appeared to be stagehands. The picadors, too, were dressed elaborately in sparkling jackets and pants. In contrast to the bright colors of the matadors, however, the picadors and their horses wore vestments of a darkish yellow color. Anyone who has ever changed a diaper knows the color.

After tricking the bull this way and that, the matadors led him towards the picador, who now called out to him, clanging his metal stirrups to draw his attention. The big, brown-backed bull charged directly into the horse, which couldn’t see him coming because its eyes were covered. The force of the charge practically knocked the horse and rider over, but the picador used the impetus to plant his lance into the bull’s back. Still, the bull kept thrusting his horns deeper and deeper into the horse…pushing him back against the side of the ring…and then lifting him up half off the ground…while the picador, still mounted, held his lance steady in the bull’s back.

The matadors rushed out, trying to distract the bull…trying to draw him away from the horse. At first, the bull paid no attention. He was getting even for that spear piercing his flesh. But then, suddenly he pulled away and charged wildly at one of the matadors.

While the matadors kept the bull distracted, the picador repositioned himself, took up a fresh lance and prepared to bring in the bull for another charge. And again, the scene was repeated…with the bull driving his horns into the horse’s protected flanks and then pushing upwards, while the picador stabbed and thrust with his lance. And once again, the matadors flung their capes in front of the bull’s eyes and seduced him back to his fruitless charges.

At last, as the picador repositioned himself and directed his horse out of the ring, the awful horns blew once more. Now the bull was ready for a new torment. A matador strode to the center of the ring and laid down his hat to clapping and cheering. Then, he took out gaily-colored banderillas – thin, sharp spikes about 2 feet long. One in each hand, he moved to the center of the ring.

Once he was in place, the other matadors stood still and silent, while the one with the spikes called to the bull…stood up on his toes…and made a gesture with his red-and-white harpoons. Blood glistened on the bull’s back and dripped onto the ground. He stood motionless for a minute, as if wondering what was happening to him. He turned his head to the murmuring crowd all around him. And then he did as he was bid; he charged the matador at full speed.

With no cape, only the spikes, the matador moved quickly to the right, in a feint. And then, with the animal almost on him, he darted to the left, planting the spikes into the bull’s shoulders, in almost exactly the same place that the picador had left his wound.

The crowd clapped and roared with approval.

The scene was repeated, now with an improvement. The same matador took two new spikes and minced like a tango dancer to the center of the ring. But this time he stood with his back to the bull. The bull charged. The matador waited until the horns had almost reached his back, then he feinted again…turned around…and two more banderillas found their mark. Now, the blood was pouring from the bull’s back.

And while the bull looked on, stock-still, bewildered, the matador arched his back and posed…waving out at the cheering crowd, like a prima donna.

Now, walking over to the side of the ring, he picks up a smaller, redder cape – the muleta. In its folds he hides a straight epee. Then, he turns and tempts the bull again…and again the bull charges. But now, the animal is tired. He lumbers closer to the matador, not strong enough any more to charge helter-skelter across the ring. The matador seems to have him completely under his control.

But then, all of a sudden, the bull, still too tired to charge straight ahead, brushes against the matador, turns tightly – and in a second, tosses him to the side. Suddenly, the killer is on the ground and it is the bull who is master of the field.

The other matadors dash out. With their giant capes, they turn the bull’s head from the fallen matador. But the man is not finished. He gets up. His hand has been gored and his costume is bloodied, yet it is the bull’s blood, not his own. He arches his back again as he moves once more delicately towards the bull. He taunts him, almost.

“Why do you treat me so roughly?” he seems to ask. He then turns to the crowd and makes a sweeping gesture with his right hand, like Babe Ruth pointing to the left-field bleachers. Only he, not the bull, will be the master of the ring, it says. He, not the bull, will leave standing on his feet.

The horns sound again. The matador walks to the edge of the ring and takes a new sword from one of the handlers, holding it in his right hand, with the muleta in the left. He tempts the bull into one pass…then another…and then, passing the cape behind his back, still another.

Ole! Ole! Ole!

The crowd is pleased. The bull is weakening. The sky has turned as red as the painted sky at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. On the sand of the ring are stains of red, too, where the bull has shed his blood.

El Toro no longer charges wildly, but slowly…and now the matador raises his sword and points it at the top of the bull’s bloody shoulders. He shakes his cape…tempting the bull forward…and at the moment the bull charges towards him, he rushes forward towards him, planting his sword deep into the animal’s heart, while sliding away from the sharp horns.

Now, the bull stands still. He seems to be wondering what has struck him and what it means. The supporting matadors begin to move towards him, fluttering their capes on both sides. The bull moves his head towards one…then the other…one, then the other. But there is no fight left in him. After a minute, he slumps to the ground. His legs give way…then, he rolls on his side. One of the matadors comes up to him with a long knife and plunges it just behind his skull. The bull’s legs give a last jerk. And then, it is over.

In a second, the giant doors open. A team of gaily colored mules comes out…the dead bull is hitched up…and then dragged off the field. The crowd claps.

And then, once more, the horns sound again.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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