Beauty in art and Death: Bull-Fighting in Hemingway

Abstract: Beauty in art is inherent and in all its aspects dominates the world of literature. Some creative writers have realised the importance of outdoor sports in human life and consciously included them in their work to bring about their vision of life through aesthetic renderings. The arena of sport offers a context based on skill that often produces beauty as a by-product. Hemingway has successfully brought about a synthesis of both – transforming a sport into art, thereby bringing it into the realm of beauty. This paper is an attempt to analyse Hemingway’s depiction of bull-fighting through Elaine Scarry’s ideas on beauty. Scarry’s views on beauty as sacred, unprecedented, life-giving and immortal, equating it with truth and justice splendidly blend in Hemingway’s art of writing and his portrayal of bull-fighting.

Keywords: synthesis, technique, tragedy, grace under pressure, triumph, passionate, sublime

Art has a complex association with beauty. Beauty in every sense of the word is one of the most important and intriguing ideas in the world of literature. Some creative writers have realised the importance of outdoor sports in human life and consciously included them in their work to bring about their vision of life through aesthetic renderings. In any work of art a sense of beauty is created through skill at times, with a dominant aesthetic motive. The arena of sport, on the other hand, offers a context based on skill that often produces beauty as a by-product. Hemingway has successfully brought about a synthesis of both – transforming a sport into art, thereby bringing it into the realm of beauty. This paper is an attempt to analyse Hemingway’s depiction of bull-fighting through Elaine Scarry’s ideas on beauty. Scarry, in her lectures, contends that beauty is sacred, unprecedented, life-giving and immortal. She also goes to equate beauty with truth and justice. With Hemingway these notions of beauty got so splendidly blended with his art of writing that a conscious effort is needed to separate and decode each strand.

Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies (January 2014) Vol. XIV. No. 1

Hemingway first travelled to Spain in 1923 to experience bull- fighting, following the advice of Gertrude Stein. It was then that he experienced first- hand the fervour of Feria de San Fermin in Pamplona. In fact, it was Hemingway’s writing that made San Fermin the internationally renowned festival that it is today. It appeared in his first novel The Sun Also Rises. The trip marked a watershed moment for Hemingway as it proved to be a passionate affair with bullfighting lasting till he finally decided to take his life in 1961. From Hemingway’s point of view, the training and talent of an artist are very much like the talent and training of a sportsman. The artist as well as the sportsman must be educated and trained properly to make use of their natural talent. This training is a painful process. The technique which Romero in The Sun Also Rises developed in his bull-fighting, Hemingway was always seeking to develop in his art – a technique which was straight and pure and natural. Similarly all his heroes, though they metaphorically exist close to the horns of the bulls, must never make any contortions; must seek to know the real emotion by keeping an absolute purity in their attitude and behaviour. Bull-fighting provides an aesthetic of action; it is an external demonstration of the Hemingway style – that is when it is practised clearly, without deception, as it is by Pedro Romero, the young Spanish bullfighter of Hemingway’s first novel or Manuel Garcia, the aging bull-fighter in the story “The Undefeated” whose defeat itself proves to be a kind of victory.

Bull-fighting is a subject which had attracted Hemingway right from the start of his writing career, appearing in both his short stories and the inter-chapter vignettes in his first volume In Our Time, but Death in the Afternoon is his ultimate treatise on bull-fighting. Perhaps it was the “unreality of war where most men die like animals, not men” (Death in the Afternoon 122) that Hemingway preferred the simplicity of the orderly death in the narrow world of the bull-ring. This ring contrasts with the world outside, where the smoke of dead ideals and values blinds all from any hope for positive achievement or self-realisation. Random violence and grotesque forms of death mark modern warfare. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway says: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour” (Hemingway 91). According to him the bull-ring is the only place in which can be found the grace and courage that are his deepest article of faith. In the ritual of the bull-ring he saw a kind of microcosm of life and death.

Hemingway came to believe that bull-fighting was not a sport but a tragedy (Death in the Afternoon 8). Tragedy itself is considered to be the highest form of art. All the characteristic features which Aristotle relates to tragedy such as it being mimetic, serious, having rhythm and harmony, telling a story which is performed rather than narrated, arousing feelings of pity and fear and then bringing about a catharsis of these feelings, can be associated with bull-fighting as well. Hemingway’s equating of bull-fighting with tragedy lifts it up to a state of sublime which is beyond the boundary of any sport. Bull-fighting was for Hemingway a tragedy in the realm of art where the artist is made aware of the precious brevity of life in the face of death. In equating bull-fight with tragedy, Hemingway identifies its different ‘acts’ which are performed in the arena which when presented truthfully lead to the catharsis which is the essence of tragedy:

The three absolute acts of tragedy are first the entry of the bull when the picadors receive the shock of his attacks and attempts to protect their horses with their lances. Then the horses go out and the second act is the planting of the banderillos. This is one of the most interesting and difficult parts but among the easiest for a new bullfight fan to appreciate in technique … Last is the death of the bull, which is in the hands of the matador who has had the charge of the bull since his first attack. The death of the bull is most formal. It is in this phase that most of the fatal

accidents occur (The Hemingway Papers).

Hemingway’s dedicated bull-fighters are ‘aficionados’ who face the facts of both life and death with full consciousness of the inter- relation of the two. In his narration of the details regarding the sport, Jake Barnes explains how in bull-fighting they speak of the terrain of the bull and the terrain of the bull-fighter. As long as the bull-fighter stays in his own terrain, he is comparatively safe. Each time he enters the terrain of the bull, he is in great danger. Working in the terrain of the bull would give the sensation of the coming tragedy. People would go to the corrida to be given tragic sensations and perhaps to see the death of the bull-fighter. It is in this bull-ring, where the bull-fighter confronts death and accepts danger and violence as part of life that life seems to achieve a victory over death. But still, it is an ironic victory signalling the ultimate tragedy of man.

Scarry believes that the idea of beauty makes us think about justice:

When we speak about beauty, attention sometimes falls on the beautiful object, at other times on the perceiver’s cognitive act of beholding the beautiful thing, and at still other times on the creative act that is prompted by one’s being in the presence of what is beautiful. The invitation to ethical fairness can be found at each of these three sites (On Beauty 65)

With Hemingway, justice was a concept which was no longer found in the contemporary war-ravaged society. Hemingway himself had witnessed the horrors and brutality of war and the resultant disillusionment. The description of people blown out into pieces within a fraction of a second through mortar shell explosions, dead bodies lying scattered after the attacks and the ‘indignity’ in death made him believe that the only place where man can die with dignity is in the bull-ring. The undignified face of death depicted in the battlefield did not leave any space for illusions like bravery, courage, honour or dignity. Through his short story “A Natural History of the Dead,” Hemingway contrasts the dignity of dying in a bull-ring with death encountered in war-front, “where the day dawns upon naked corpses,” as the dead are even stripped off their clothes.

The Spanish, Hemingway points out, think a great deal about death and their belief in religion is based on the acceptance of the fact that life is much shorter than death. Their intelligent interest in death also accounts for their interest in bull fighting; and there is nothing obsessive or morbid about their interest in death. As he declares that death is “the inescapable reality, the only thing any man may be sure of” (Death in the Afternoon 265). Thus death needs to be accepted as an integral part of life. With Hemingway death occupies the centre of life, and it awaits man from whichever point he may start. It is this presence of death that not only completes life but also makes life extremely precious. That beauty in execution may be an essential attribute of a great bull-fighter, but it is not the sportsman’s primary aim, ahead of skill or success. Bull-fighting has elements of extreme beauty and great skill that could justifiably be called artistic. Beauty, according to its theorists, causes us to gape and suspend all thought. But simultaneously what is beautiful prompts the mind to move chronologically back in search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does all this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depended on it (On Beauty 21). Schiller argues for the existence of both ‘a melting’ beauty and an ‘energetic’ beauty. The aesthetics of bullfighting is based on the interaction of the man and the bull. In his non-fictional work Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway meticulously goes on to explain the nuances of bull-fighting and a picturing of the spirit in which it is done and seen. A good matador must go to the very brink of death every time he puts on a performance. Pedro Romero’s performance in the bull ring is described thus:

The bull charged as Romero charged. Romero’s left hand dropped the muleta over the bull’s muzzle to blind him, his left shoulder went forward between the horns as the sword went in, and just for an instant he and the bull were one. Romero went out over the bull, the right arm extended high up to where the hilt of the sword had gone in between the bull’s shoulders. Then the figure was broken. (The Sun Also Rises 218)

The precise moment, when for a fraction of a second life seems to embrace death and life and death become one – becomes most intense and it is this moment when life is lived at its fullest. This encounter with death becomes the very celebration of life. The ‘unselfing’ takes place both for the bull-fighter and the aficionado. A new consciousness seems to take place transforming the very existence of both the beholder and the beheld. This aliveness holds beauty as life-affirming – life which is counted not by the span of time but by the intensity of the realisation of the lived moment even for a very short while.

Pedro Romero is the perfect ‘code hero’ of the novel. He is a man rooted in the Spanish tradition and soil with a past. He is given a material identity through descriptions of his physique and controlled movements. He is presented as a perfect bullfighter dedicated to his work. He is shown in possession of a spirit the events of the world cannot touch. The protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes is, however, an aficionado and who recognises and loves bull-fighting suggesting that he is a passionate man although the war has rendered him impotent. Jake’s knowledge of bull-fighting empowers him to authoritatively describe the nuances of the sport of bull-fighting to Brett Ashley. Brett’s ‘gaze’ is directed by Jake towards those aspects of bull-fighting which she otherwise would not have been able to observe. Once again what Scarry professes – that “beauty quickens, it adrenalises, it makes the heart beat faster” (On Beauty 18) is what Brett and the readers are brought to experience. By the time Romero comes to perform his final act Brett is herself equipped with the tools of judging his performance. In this way the reader’s gaze, too, is directed towards those enigmatic aspects of the bull-fighter and the bull which Hemingway has undertaken to highlight.

The beautiful, almost without any effort of our own, acquaints us with the mental event of conviction, and so pleasurable a mental state is this that ever afterward one is willing to labour, struggle and wrestle with the world to locate enduring sources of conviction – to locate what is true. Both in the account that assumes the existence of the immortal realm and in the account that assumes the nonexistence of the immortal realm, beauty is a starting place for education. (On Beauty 22) It is where Hemingway got his education in bullfighting and it is also where Brett gets her education on the same subject:

I had her watch how Romero took the bull away from a fallen horse with his cape, and how he held him with the cape and turned him, smoothly and suavely, never wasting the bull. I

pointed out to her the tricks the other bull-fighters used to make it look as though they were working closely. She saw why she liked Romero’s cape-work and why she did not like the others. …

Brett saw haw something that was beautifully done close to the bull was ridiculous if it were done a little way off. (The Sun Also Rises 167)

The bull is not viewed by supporters as a ‘sacrificial victim’ – instead it is seen as a worthy adversary, deserving of respect in its own way. “It is not that beauty is life-threatening, but instead that it is life- affirming, life giving” (On Beauty 20). The goal of the Matador is not simply to kill the bull in the ring, but rather to offer a show of controlled personal danger to the crowd. The elements of truth and justice must be maintained during the show as the beauty of the act could be marred once the realm of the sacred is not aspired and adhered to. As the bull charges the cape, the Matador performs a series of passes ideally decreasing the distance between himself and the bull with each pass and remaining calm and stoic in the face of danger.

The ‘aficion’ of Montoya, the owner of the hotel where Jake and his friends put up in Pamplona, is apparent from the way he views the sport – as the highest, purest form of art, one that exceeds all else in love, beauty and passion. Montoya senses the betrayal of trust he had put on Jake when he finds him acting as a ‘pimp’ between Brett and Romero. He fears that Brett’s influence would prove fatal to the professional career of the young bull-fighter, transforming the ‘energetic beauty’ Romero had exhibited in the bull-ring to a ‘melting beauty’ which can be seen in the performance of other bull-fighters.

Hemingway’s philosophy of life is also depicted in the arena for the bullfights. With his major fiction based on war and its effects; death, destruction and violence abound in his writing. The Sun Also Rises pictures the amoral concerns of the post war society – the society which had lost faith in all values resulting in total disillusionment. The ideal Hemingway character understands the need for acting gracefully under pressure and at the risk of defeat at the hands of either the society or of nature. He is a man dedicated both to the task of meeting physical and moral emergencies with integrity and courage. Romero proves his morality in terms of his immediate experience. What made you feel good afterwards was moral; what made you feel disgusted was immoral.

Brett Ashley, often described by critics as “an exclusively destructive force,” “a compulsive bitch” is motivated by an impetuous animal urge for sex leading her from one man to another. When finally she falls for the young bull-fighter we do see her as an “ultimate bitch.” Whether Romero becomes an object of desire for Brett because she has seen him perform in the bull-ring and appreciates his art or simply because she is a nymphomaniac who moves from one man to another and the physical appearance of this young bull-fighter attracts her attention; the beauty in her character is brought out when she decides to give up this young chap. Her own awareness of her destructive nature is reflected in her statement, “I do feel such a bitch,” made over and over again in the course of a single page. But her best moment comes when she sends Romero away. Realising that she could do nothing but, lead the bullfighter to both professional and emotional ruin she decides to ‘give him up’ partly for unselfish reasons, for the first time. She says to Jake, “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch.” She then adds, “It’s sort of what we have instead of God” (The Sun Also Rises 243). Scarry, in her defence of beauty includes Iris Murdock’s idea of a ‘radical decentring’ which one undergoes in the presence of the beautiful. According to Murdock, “anything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue”(Scarry78). It is the purity and truthfulness which she encounters in Romero’s love for her and his dedication towards his profession that brings about a transformation in Brett’s character. For the first time she acts unselfishly.

Romero is the only character who has a strong sense of ethical values. Even the other bullfighters could not come to match his moral perfections:

Romero never made any contortions, always it was straight and pure and natural in line. The others twisted themselves like corkscrews, their elbows raised and leaned against the flanks of the bull after his horns had passed, to give a faked look of danger. Afterward all that was faked turned bad and gave an unpleasant feeling. Since the death of Joselito all the bullfighters had been

developing a technic that simulated this appearance of danger in order to give a fake emotional feeling while the bullfighter was really safe. (The Sun Also Rises 167-68)

This false impression of working close to the bull and simulating the appearance of danger is not what falls within the realm of beauty. It can be termed as ‘impure beauty’ as it is a false representation of perfection and in The Sun Also Rises, the public gathered to watch the performance is not ready to be duped. Belmonte, the retired bullfighter, who was worshipped in his heyday, is now shown to compromise with his art:

Belmonte imposed conditions and insisted that his bulls should not be too large, nor too dangerously armed with horns, and so the element that was necessary to give the sensation of tragedy was not there, and the public, who wanted three times as much from Belmonte, who was sick with a fistula, as Belmonte had ever been able to give, felt defrauded and cheated. (The Sun Also Rises 214)

Hemingway’s characters’ stand on morality is intuitive. Its standard is internal and personal, as James B. Colvert points out, it is based on “the idea that the best values are those which are emotionally and psychologically satisfying.” Hemingway’s moral concern in his works has been termed empirical or pragmatic by the critics as it scraps all those formalistic notions that tradition accepted and sanctified. They are the morals of the practical modern world and of the man of action. If morality and beauty are seen to co-exist, then Hemingway’s world of outdoor sports entails a beauty of its own.

Lawmakers in the Catalonia region of Spain have put a ban on the centuries-old tradition of bullfighting, bringing to an end the blood soaked pageant whose beauty has fascinated artists and writers from Goya to Hemingway besides the innumerable fans of the sport. Juan, an ardent aficionado who wanted to challenge the 2011 court verdict banning the bull-fight, focuses on the aesthetics of the sport and does not engage with the ethical issue of violence at all:

This is culture, this is tradition, this is beauty and art. None of those opposing the corrida have ever witnessed a fight. The men in the ring risk their lives and the bulls often get the better of them. The sheer beauty of the gestures, the grace and the courage required are phenomenal. Of course we are not stopping here. We shall challenge the law in court. (qtd. from the report “It’s Curtains for Bullfight,” The Hindu, 27 September 2011)

The American author has long been identified with the violent tradition which he celebrated as a glorious display of courage. Even if animal activists succeed in completely bringing to an end this sport , the beauty of it will remain forever in the work of this Nobel Laureate who triumphed in the undefeatable spirit of man, affirming Scarry’s view that ‘unlike all other pleasures, the pleasure we take in beauty is inexhaustible. No matter how long beautiful things endure, they cannot out endure our longing for them’ (On Beauty 37).


“Bullfighting is Not a Sport – It is a Tragedy,” The Hemingway Papers. at Web.

“It’s Curtains for Bullfight,” The Hindu e-paper International Section, http:// bullfight/article2488724.ece, Madrid, September 27, 2011. Web.

Colvert, B. James. “Ernest Hemingway’s Morality in Action,” American Literature. (27 November, 1955).

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises. New York: Charles Scribner’s. Sons, 1926.

—. Death in the Afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932.

—. “The Undefeated,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1938.

Scarry, Elaine. On Beauty and Being Just. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values.

Delivered at Yale University, March 25 and 26, 1998.


SHAHLA GHAURI. Is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Her area of specialisation is Modern fiction. She is interested in Post-Colonial Studies, Women Writings and Cultural Studies. She has attended several national and international Seminars and Conferences on related topics. She has published several papers in Journals and book-chapters.

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Is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh. Her area of specialisation is Modern fiction. She is interested in Post-Colonial Studies, Women Writings and Cultural Studies. She has attended several national and international Seminars and Conferences on related topics. She has published several papers in Journals and book-chapters.

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