UserpicTLS Review

The remarkably thin-skinned Alexander Fiske-Harrison is very upset with a review I wrote of his recent book for the Times Literary Supplement (16th September) and has been telling anyone who will listen about what a positively horrible man I am. I do not normally get involved in spats of this sort, but since Fiske-Harrison has made some serious allegations, I believe, in this case, I do not have any choice. 

Another thing I do not have is time. I am certainly not going to devote more than five minutes a day to the ideas of Fiske-Harrison - that would be a ridiculous waste of my time. So, these posts will be short and sweet – I shall permit myself nothing that takes me more than five minutes to formulate, write and post.

Here is a penultimate version of the review – it is what I sent to the TLS, without the minor copyediting that the TLS used to construct the final version.

Tomorrow I’ll post Fiske-Harrison's response. After that, some critical analysis – to be continued until ennui gets the better of me.


Alexander Fiske-Harrison, Into The Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight, Profile Books, 284 pp. £15.99. Tristan Wood, How to Watch a Bullfight, Merlin Unwin Books, 218 pp. £20.

 Into the Arena is an account of Alexander Fiske-Harrison’s progressive immersion into the world of the Spanish bullfight. Tristan Wood’s How to Watch a Bullfight does what it says on the cover: tells you what to expect and how to evaluate a bullfight.

Oxford educated Fiske-Harrison saw his first bullfight in 2000, when he was twenty-three, on holiday with his parents in Seville. This, for reasons that are not made entirely clear, sparked a fascination with the activity. He wrote, for Prospect magazine, a defence of bullfighting that, he frequently hints, many people read. He decided to write a book. In his estimation, his combination of ‘a little biology, a little philosophy, and a measure of intellectual honesty’ … put him ‘out in front of the common pro-and anti-bullfighting commentators’. However, he wants to go further. So, in 2008, he moves to Spain, availed of some contacts, and insinuated himself into the world of bullfighting, becoming friends with, among others, the famous bullfighter, Juan José Padilla. After a year of this, he decided he now had a ‘clear lead over the pack’. Nevertheless: ‘I decided that I must represent the world of the bullfight as it is. And the only way to do that, I decided, was to go over the horns, sword in hand.’ Happily, Eduardo Davila Miura, ‘one of the greatest matadors of all’ is, at this time, giving lessons for modest €35 an hour, and Fiske-Harrison trains with him three to four days a week for several months. He never makes it as far as the public arena, but eventually does manage to kill a juvenile bull – somewhere between one half and two thirds of the size of a bull that typically dies in the arena – watched by a hundred or so people, including family, friends and, apparently, ‘the great and good’ of Seville.

A reader’s reaction to these books is likely to depend decisively on how one thinks of bullfighting. If one thinks there is little wrong with the activity, one may read Fiske-Harrison’s book as an engaging adventure story of a young man pursuing a dream with determination and courage. If one thinks bullfighting is vicious or depraved, it is unlikely one will be able to look beyond that; and one would no more want to learn how to watch a bullfight than how to watch a snuff movie. A significant portion of Fiske-Harrison’s book is, accordingly, concerned with arguing that bullfighting is not morally pernicious.

The moral case against bullfighting is straightforward: making an animal suffer unnecessarily is morally wrong. Opinions vary concerning when suffering qualifies as necessary, but it is widely accepted that suffering undergone in the name of entertainment is unnecessary. This is the primary justification for the banning, in much of the developed world, of a wide variety of blood sports, including, dog-fighting, cock-fighting, bear-baiting, bull-baiting, deer-coursing, and fox-hunting.

Fiske-Harrison’s first argument: bullfighting is art. ‘There’s something tragic about a bullfight. It’s like a piece of theatre – it’s even in three acts – and I think it is its artistic quality which mitigates and justifies the undeniable suffering the bull undergoes in the ring.’ Bullfighting may be art. Ever since Marcel Duchamp attached a urinal to a wall and named it ‘The Fountain’, the boundaries of art have been disputed. But whether or not bullfighting qualifies is irrelevant. Costa Rican artist, Guillermo Vargas, once (reputedly) starved a dog to death in a gallery in Nicaragua. He claimed this was art. Even if correct, this is no justification. The point is not that bullfighting is just like starving a dog to death. Rather it is that if an activity is seriously morally wrong, then it should not be done even if it is art. Therefore, Fiske-Harrison’s appeal to art will work only if we assume that bullfighting is not seriously morally wrong. In other words, his appeal to art is question-begging.

Fiske-Harrison’s second argument: we do things that are as bad, or worse, to other animals. The life of a fighting bull is better than that of beef cattle, and death in the ring is no worse than death in a slaughterhouse. Let us accept this premise. The obvious response is that two wrongs do not make a right: one cannot justify one wrong by pointing to the existence of another wrong. Fiske-Harrison counters with a charge of hypocrisy: ‘How can you dare to say this? If you live in a developed country, you live with mechanized death factories whose products – both carnal and financial – pervade every strata of your life and economy.’ A charge of hypocrisy is, however, clearly irrelevant to the issue in question, viz. whether or not bullfighting is morally wrong. Judging this issue has nothing to do with the character or actions of people who condemn bullfighting. Let us suppose that Smith, a murderer, condemns Jones for being a murderer. Jones responds: ‘How dare you condemn me, you are just as bad – hypocrite!’ This may be true, Smith may be just as bad, but in no way alters the fact that what Jones did was morally wrong.

There is a well-known logical error: the ad hominem fallacy. This is the fallacy of thinking that one can undermine the status of a claim or argument by undermining the motives or character of the person who makes it. The charge of hypocrisy could only be thought relevant by someone who is in the habit of relying on ad hominem fallacies and, unfortunately, examples of this litter Fiske-Harrison’s writing. In the course of a rather bad-tempered exchange with the anti-bullfighting activist, Jordi Casamitjana, Fiske-Harrison cannot refrain from noting that, ‘I was unsurprised when I found out some time later that he is a vegan and also against the keeping of pets’. When writing about the first papal attempt to ban bullfighting, he notes that that Pius V was heavily implicated in the Inquisition. And he manages to combine ad hominem argument with startling arrogance when he writes of Albaro Munera – a prominent bullfighter who later came to condemn his former profession – that he ‘became an animal rights protester because other people told him to.’ The deployment of ad homimem fallacies is both logically inept and morally distasteful.

The ‘argument’ he levels against the animal rights position is also misguided. If we have duties to animals, he writes: ‘our duty would include, for example, stopping lions from killing antelope in so far as we are capable.’ This is a surprising claim given that almost all the major figures who have written in support of animal rights have been very clear both that and why their position does not entail this.

In the case of morality, some have argued, logical argument is always secondary. What drives morality is not rationality but sensibility: sentiment, emotion. In this regard, Fiske-Harrison’s raises, although does not answer, a good question: ‘Why is anyone willing to tolerate watching an animal damaged and damaged and damaged again, and then killed, no matter the beauty of the dance that leads to it?’ I think certain important clues emerge in the course of his writing. First there is an odd sort of emotional detachment on which Fiske-Harrison himself remarks. ‘It seems odd now that I could be so cold about the animal, but I was already immersing myself in my subject’. A bull crying out as a picador’s lance is driven in to it is treated as an opportunity for intellectual speculation rather than empathic identification. What is going on in the bull’s mind?

There is also a curious reluctance to engage in critical moral self-scrutiny. For example, in connection with the demeanour of the bullfighter Miguel Angel Perera, Fiske-Harrison writes: ‘I cannot help but remember research done on bullfighters by the Madrid psychiatrist Jose Carrasco, finding much lower than average levels of monoamine oxidase, a similar neurochemical being found in those members of the prison population who have been classified as clinical psychopaths. Whatever the truth, the twenty-five-year-old Perera is a fascinating study in tranquillity, although I did not seem him smile once at that table.’

Suppose that you are an admirer of an activity that a sizeable majority think is morally monstrous. You believe you know better. More than an admirer, you are entertaining the idea of becoming a practitioner. You then discover that the successful practitioners of the activity tend to have the neurochemical profile characteristic of clinical psychopaths. Would this not set the alarm bells ringing? Would you simply dismiss your new-found knowledge, as Fiske-Harrison apparently does, with ‘Whatever the truth ...’? Would you not just a little more concerned with what the truth actually is?

After being present at the killing of a bull in practice, Fiske-Harrison gets blood on his hands. He writes: ‘I went straight to Flaherty’s, Seville’s Irish pub … and ordered a large glass of Johnny Walker, sitting staring at it with the blood from the great, dead bull staining my hands pink and my nails black. It took days to wash out.’

This does seem a little narcissistic. Admittedly, I was primed for this reading of the passage by its vicinity to some gratuitous account of women – married and unmarried – throwing themselves at him: ‘Was she really making a pass at me in front of her furious husband? I was pretty sure she was – and was half-fascinated (sic) to confirm it.’ While having no direct experience of the blood of a recently deceased Spanish bull, I would be very surprised if it were that difficult to remove from one’s hands. And, so I cannot allay the suspicion that Fiske-Harrison is sitting in the bar with blood on his hands because he enjoys it, his little red badge of courage.

Recent studies have suggested that the decisive factor in determining one’s emotional response to bullfighting is the accompanying narrative. Children are naturally averse to the spectacle, but if you accompany it with a suitably upbeat narrative they grow progressively more comfortable. In their descriptions of foxhunting, writers such as Surtees and Trollope were frequently guilty of vainglory, portraying the fox as a ’noble adversary’ and the hunt as a ‘Homeric contest’. It is difficult to allay the suspicion that vainglory also infects Fiske-Harrison’s account. He admits that bullfighting is not a sport. The statistics are unequivocal. The World Society for the Protection of Animals estimates that around 40,000 bulls are killed each year in Spain’s 600 bullrings and 3,200 bullfights. Around 210,000 bulls die annually in Latin American bullfights. There have, reportedly, been 52 matador deaths in the arena since 1700 – five matadors have died in the ring since the mid 1990s and some ten in the last fifty years. The ratio of dead bulls to dead bullfighters is generally understood to be several hundred thousand to one.

Yet, the language Fiske-Harrison employs throughout the book seems designed to give a quite different impression. The Miuras are ‘the bulls of death’. He apparently endorses Hemingway’s (silly) claim that no land mammal beside man could survive in the ring with a bull. Padilla, his bullfighter friend, will kill some bulls in Pamplona – ‘or die trying.’ Injuries are not uncommon, but the statistics suggest that Padilla is more likely to die trying to get to the arena than in it.

Bullfighting has recently been banned in Catalonia, and has been banned in the Balearic Islands for some time. In Spain, recent surveys suggest that 70% of the population are uninterested in the activity and, in the 15-24 demographic that figure climbs to 82%. Hopefully, this is an indication that bullfighting will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with the other blood sports. No matter how much one tries to spin a narrative of heroism, culture, art, tradition; no matter how many ad hominem manoeuvres one makes, the truth is always the same. Bullfighting is the deliberate and gratuitous inflicting of suffering and, ultimately, death on a creature that is essentially helpless – done in the name of spectacle. No matter how much you try to dress it up, that can never be a good thing. 



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