(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“The bullfight is not a sport,” Hemingway observes in the opening of the second chapter of Death in the Afternoon; rather, “it is a tragedy.” The contest is never equal, since it is predestined that the man will eventually triumph over the bull, and the magnificent creature will end up dead. This tragedy is “well ordered” and “strongly disciplined by ritual.” The person who truly appreciates the bullfight will be “one who has this sense of the tragedy and ritual of the fight so that the minor aspects are not important except as they relate to the whole.” What this aficionado seeks is “honesty and what is true, not tricked, emotion and always classicism.” Coming early in Hemingway’s commentary, these dicta signal to the reader the kind of work Death in the Afternoon really is: a modern-day poetics, patterned after the Aristotelian model, in which the Greek philosopher carefully examines the parts that make up tragic drama to show how they relate to the whole of the performance. Whether Hemingway consciously adopted this Aristotelian mode is open to debate; there can be little doubt, however, that his examination of the bullfight has strong parallels with Aristotle’s dissection of the elements of Greek tragic drama.

Like Aristotle, Hemingway insists that the perfect form of the art he describes is achieved when all the parts work in harmony to support the final end: the graceful killing of the bull, which leaves the spectators with an experience of catharsis: “when [an artistically executed bullfight] is over, and the death administered to the animal that has made it possible,” it leaves the spectator “as changed and as sad as any major emotion will leave you.”

What Hemingway has seen in postwar Spain does not always measure up to that standard, and hence he calls many of these performances examples of “decadent art.” The art form decays, he notes, “through a magnification of certain of its aspects.” He writes of the modern bullfight with mourning for a great art gone to seed: The bulls are no longer the magnificent specimens they were in years past, the men who kill them have become poseurs rather than skilled craftsmen at their trade. Too much emphasis is given now to dexterity and flair with the parts of the fight— the capework, the passes close to the horns of the bull, the placing of the...

(The entire section is 972 words.)