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Home » ARTSY FARTSY » JEAN SHEPHERD–Performance and Creativity & ARTSY (6) The Bulls

JEAN SHEPHERD–Performance and Creativity & ARTSY (6) The Bulls

Sometimes Shepherd discusses his thoughts about what he is doing on the air.  In part, this shows his interest in the nature of his performance, and also it’s probably a way for his listeners to realize that there is more to his work than coldly coming into a studio and talking. In a Seattle radio interview on KRAB-FM in October, 1971, he sets a little scene while talking to one of the interviewers:

When I am doing a radio show it’s really a performance. I don’t talk to the microphone or to the listener—I talk to myself. I’m having a continuing conversation with the other half of me, which keeps laughing maniacally and saying, “Oh, what a crock of canal water.”

And then I keep saying, “No, no, you don’t understand.” And so, when somebody is listening in, I have never yet gotten over that. All the years I’ve been on the air, all the shows I’ve done, I’ve never yet gotten over that curious little feeling of surprise that somebody actually listens. It’s private to me. I never think in terms of the audience.

Channel_Cat19

“It’s private to me”

It’s like if you’re sitting in your room, your own room someplace, let’s even say more intimate than that—let’s say a bedroom somewhere and you’re doing something. Let’s just say you, Helen [one of the interviewers]. Let’s just think a hypothetical thing. You’re sitting there weaving the great, mystic doily of all time. You’ve got the secret doily, this gigantic doily that has the history of the world woven into it, see. You’re weaving away there, see.

And you put it down now and you go out. You go to the A & P. You’re in the frozen food department and someone comes up and says, “Helen, my god, that doily is fantastic.” Someone you never saw before, see?

You say, “Oh really? You like it?”

“The thing you did on the pyramids.”

[Helen comments, “You say, ‘Back off.’”]

Well, that’s what I do. But the thing is, it’s a very private thing…. There’s an old actors’ axiom. It has lot of—it even deals in a way with Pirandello, and it says, “If you’re ever on stage and you start hearing yourself talk, you’re in bad trouble.”

Think of this: “I’ve never yet gotten over that curious little feeling of surprise that somebody actually listens. It’s private to me.”  Shepherd, in a way, feels that he is talking only to himself. Doesn’t that remind one of the idea that each listener indeed feels that Shepherd is talking to him/her alone?

Doesn’t it all remind one of how many creators are so locked into their own thoughts and feelings while they work, that each one feels that he is in a world of one? Truly, it does seem that Shepherd, especially, is within himself. That he is, most of his waking moments, self-absorbed. I suppose we mostly all are. When I’m in the middle of some engrossing project,  sometimes I have to mentally jolt myself into remembering that I’m also part of a family, neighborhood, world.

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The Bulls–¡Ole!

“By profession I am a drama critic, by conviction a believer in the abolition of capital punishment; by birth, English. The reader may find it odd that a lover of the mimic deaths of stage tragedy,  an enemy of judicial killing, and a native of a country which has immemorially detested those blood sports which involve personal hazard should have succumbed to bull fever, joined the aficion, become a friend and apologist of the Spanish bullfight. And indeed it is odd….But now the bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds—love of grace and valor, of poise and pride; and, beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique. No public spectacle in the world is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight.” Kenneth Tynan, English and American theater critic and author, beginning his 1955 book, Bull Fever.

I was an aficionado of los toros. That is hard to believe for most people who know me (including my wife). I blame it on my cousin, Raymond B. Anderson, who, when I was an impressionable pre-teenager and he was years older, gave me advice on what to read. He suggested Hemingway among other authors. He loaned me his copy of Death in the Afternoon. I soon became hooked on Hemingway, bullfighting, and Spain. I ended up reading and collecting virtually all of Hemingway, becoming an enthusiast of the bulls, and marrying a young woman from Granada, Spain. Over the years I’ve seen a total of about a hundred bulls (usually it’s 6 per afternoon, with 3 matadors) “fought” in Spain, Mexico, and Peru.

Death in the A 1932

My poor-man’s first edition.

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT IT.

I hate boxing, wrestling, and cock-fighting, etc. I am not a brave person. I have never been in a fight. I never hurt a living thing other than killing–and regretting it– mosquitoes and flies. However, I recognize that I, as well as most civilized people, live in a world in which there is little left of the primal essence and intensity that is our ancient heritage (all to the good, but we’re left with boxing and wrestling, etc.). In the modern, civilized world, there is nothing that combines our primitive being, fear/bravery, esthetic skill, our esthetic joys and terrors played out in REAL LIFE, and our “moment-of-truth” decisions, as does the art of toreo. (I’ll use a word like this rather than the inaccurate term, “bullfighting.”) Maybe toreo’s minor enactment of existential dread in our mostly sanitized modern world is worth some moral price?

pamplona.me in ring

ME

Having run through the streets

before the bulls in Pamplona, July, 1966.

Toreo is not a sport nor is it “fighting”—in Spain it’s not found in a newspaper’s sports section, but in a separate section titled Toros. It is not an “equal contest” as are sports, yet there are many strict rules regarding how the encounter is allowed to proceed. Neither the ring’s judges nor the public will tolerate breaking of these ritually determined rules. The judges administer fines and the public whistles and throws cushions. The rules are meant to properly allow for a “good” encounter—if the bull, at any phase of the ritual, is overly harmed (to make the matador’s job less risky than permitted), the encounter loses its efficacy: the power and emotion are diminished as it would be if Beethoven’s “Fifth” were played on a kazoo. Neophytes in the crowd don’t know anything about what’s going on. They think the opening passes by the matador’s assistants (that are a tentative testing of the bull’s reactions) are part of the ritual, akin to believing that an electrician, adjusting the priest’s microphone before a high mass, is part of the religious ceremony.

It’s an ancient ritual of man against a force of nature in which the bull virtually never “wins,” and the man may die and only temporarily perseveres until he is tested next time in the ring. The only “fight” is between the matador and his own bravery and sense of integrity. The man is up against certain aspects within himself: his bravery in the face of death; his decision as to how much of himself he is willing to brave at the moment; his esthetic sensibility regarding how to encounter with his choice and execution of passes, how close he’s willing to approach the horns of his potential death. In addition there’s his skill in knowing as much as he can about the nature of all bulls and learning in-process about this particular bull, improvising his strategy regarding this bull’s temperament. Properly orchestrated in the symbolic world of brute nature and a man, the man in the ring evokes the audience’s desire to encompass all those qualities within themselves, while facing the bull in twenty minutes of emotional intensity.

(How many people hunt down and kill birds, deer, and other targets just so they can beat their chest like a cave-man hero? And how many cattle are killed daily to give us the pleasure of wearing leather shoes? Or eating a good slice of London broil. I prefer mine with just a touch of red in the middle and a touch of burnt meat on the edges, while not at all thinking of “meat” that is actually an animal’s dead “flesh.”)

One sits directly on the concrete surrounding steps of the plaza.

As on the ancient Greek stone steps of an open amphitheater.

Barcelona cushion

Unless, like most, one rents a cushion. As Barcelona, in 2011, banned the corrida,

a cushion (a portion of my 9” X 13” one shown here) I found in the arena

after a visit to the plaza’s museo, would be one of maybe just a few remaining.

The hoped-for emotional intensity doesn’t happen often at the event called a “running of the bulls” (in Spanish, corrida de toros). One has to attend and endure some disappointing bull-encounters to experience–when all the aspects synthesize–a near-ideal.

Tauromaquia goes back a few thousand years in the West (see Goya’s 19th century depictions), but it only became formalized recently in Spain, and its esthetics, if I understand its history properly, only became high art with the early twentieth century innovations of Juan Belmonte, who chose not to move out of the way of the charging bull, but to create the frightening emotion embodied by standing rigidly still and controlling death to closely-but-safely pass by him, creating a moment more intensely emotional than the scripted leap and twirl of a ballet dancer. (By the way, I am a big fan of Balanchine’s dance.)

A series of passes (like a series of linked ballet moves) executed closely and with elegance, often result in the matador’s suit of lights being smeared with the bull’s blood–a stark dichotomy to the fineness of his splendid attire. Belmonte’s example led to the elaboration of elegant passes that advance the drama, as they must, to “the moment of truth,” the most intense moment of all, when man and bull are most in danger, and the bull will inevitably die. To exaggerate a comparison, would we be happy at the end of Hamlet if Hamlet didn’t die, but lived out a long and tranquil life? Hamlet has a predetermined and scripted end—and it isn’t “real.” Toreo is a fusion of art with real life. Real life—something we, in our civilized existence, seldom experience to any high degree. The audience, through the matador, is transfixed by a ritualized expression of life, death, fear, and artistically controlled bravery—the height of which is given us, in a few moments of escalating intensity, with a human’s triumph or tragedy.

….I can only say that many Americans, Englishmen, and Europeans generally, have found the bullfight something worthy of attention. That one of our premier artists chose to elucidate it both in his youth and in his older age is worthy of note, and I have never been ashamed to follow in his steps. Bullfighting is far less barbarous than American boxing, and the death of men comes far less often,…  —James Michener in his introduction to Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer, which recounts his following the 1959 season of competition between the two finest matadors of their day, Luis Miguel Dominguin, and Antonio Ordonez.

Hem & Ordonez

Hemingway preferred Ordonez. I saw Dominguin and Ordonez only once each, between 1966 and 1973. Both showed thorough understanding of the bulls and performed extremely well. Dominguin seemed cold, bloodless—a supreme technician at work. Ordonez seemed a highly skilled artist with flesh and blood and soul, at one with his bulls. By the way, a good torero feels an emotional kinship with the bulls he kills. The lead human participant is the matador–the “killer”—of bulls.

To get an idea of a really good performance, see:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zr0UZUb3Tq4 

[When first posted, this was short with only Ordonez; now much longer]

eb on the defensive

In an ideal, perfect world, I can’t defend the corrida de toros.

Yes, it is brutal in parts and it does hurt animals. But still—

here are a couple of personal mementos:

IN THE RING AFTER HAVING RUN IN FRONT OF THE BULLS IN PAMPLONA

A SEAT CUSHION FROM THE BARCELONA BULL RING

AS A TOURIST I VISITED A BULL-FIGHT SCHOOL IN MAJORCA–

At the authority’s invitation to the audience,

I was first to jump into the ring, confronting

a small, harmless heifer—

I induced it to make one pass.

From the very small and untutored crowd,

I received an “¡Ole!

toro museo by eb0003

FIRST PAGE OF MY ESSAY IN

CURATOR, THE MUSEUM JOURNAL.

lima toro ticket

MY TICKET FROM THE SPRING 1980 SEASON

OF 8 CORRIDAS IN LIMA, PERU.

I SAW THE FIRST 7 BEFORE HAVING TO FLY BACK TO NYC TO WORK & HOME

(Those were probably the last corridas I will  ever see. I remember the ambiance: the heat of the sun; the brassy blare of the plaza band’s  pasodoble; the acrid whiff of a Spanish cigar; the exhilaration after a matador had brought us to an emotional peak; the exultant roar of the crowd’s ¡Ole!)

I enjoy my loving family, my books, my artworks, my sofa,

my TV for some innings of Yankee Stadium’s manicured grass;

maybe a raw performance of blood sport on a CD–Dylan or Janis Joplin.

–I save my ticket, my photo, my cushion—

memories of 35 years ago: a touch of real blood

from my pagan past.

PS

I wrote the above thoughts in January and have been tweaking them a few times. On February 2, 2016, the New York Times had a major article on the front page of its “Sports Tuesday” section, about the current hero of the bullring, 40-year-old Jose Tomas, who, in the ring that Sunday, had been knocked down twice but not gored. (Note that the Times located the article under “sports,” as it does not have a section devoted to Toros.

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Jose Tomas that Sunday

www.youtube.com/watch?v=CYRnZFJq6u4

Geoffrey Gray, the article’s author, writes, “Tomas’s performances were savage ballets, a blend of elegance, fearlessness, timing and sacrifice. He seemed determined to pass bulls ever closer to his body, pushing the boundaries of how close a man could get.” Gray quotes Allen Josephs, a university professor and fellow aficionado, “We want the great matador to bring the animal closer and closer and closer. It’s playing with death. Why do we play with death? Because by playing with death, in some ways, we overcome it.” Gray continues, “In a real sense, bullfighting is more religion than sport, a ritual left from the ancient world.” He goes on to quote the professor again: “You know, the matadors are really the only high priests from the pagan days we have left.”

Coincidentally, on that same 2/2/16, I read the end of Julian Barnes’ introduction to his new book of articles about art, Keeping an Eye Open: “Art doesn’t just capture and convey the excitement, the thrill of life. Sometimes, it does even more: it is that thrill.”

A ritual left from the ancient world.”

My ancient, primitive world left behind 35 years ago.

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