Catalonia outlaws bullfighting. What would Hemingway say?

Even as the tide turns against bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway is remembered as a champion of the sport.

Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau
Ernest Hemingway look-alikes gather to commemorate Hemingway's fascination with the spectacle of bullfighting.

In Catalonia, animal rights activists went up against Spanish traditionalists – and the animal rights advocates won. The Catalan parliament voted 68 to 55 to end bullfighting in the region, marking the first time the centuries-old sport has been outlawed in mainland Spain.

In truth, the spectacle's popularity had been waning in recent years, say observers.

But what would Ernest Hemingway say? The American author has long been identified with the violent tradition, which he celebrated as a glorious display of courage. He introduced the running of the bulls in Pamplona to the world in his 1926 novel "The Sun Also Rises," and his 1932 book "Death in the Afternoon" is looked upon as "the Bible of bullfighting."

Hemingway saw his first bullfight in Pamplona in 1923. (It is reported that he brought his pregnant wife, Hadley, with him, hoping that the spectacle would have a positive influence on their unborn child.)

"He become hooked on the drama of the whole thing," recalled Hemingway friend A.E. Hotchner. Hemingway insisted that a bullfight was not a sport but a tragedy.

What was it that so fascinated the Lost Generation author about the confrontation between man and beast? "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 honor," he wrote in "Death in the Afternoon."

Hemingway never outgrew his love of the spectacle. He last visited Spain in 1959 to cover a dramatic confrontation between two matadors for Life magazine. (The piece was published in 1985 as "The Dangerous Summer" and is sometimes called Hemingway's last book.) When Hemingway died in 1961, two tickets to the upcoming Pamplona bullfights were found in his drawer.

But would he have been surprised by the ruling in Catalonia? Surely not.

Even in Hemingway's time sentiments ran against the tradition and the author well understood the source of their strength. "It would be pleasant of course for those who do like it if those who do not would not feel that they had to go to war against it or give money to try to suppress it, since it offends them or does not please them," he wrote in "Death in the Afternoon. "[B]ut that is too much to expect and anything capable of arousing passion in its favor will surely raise as much passion against it."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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