Saul Maloff

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 963

Knowing perfectly well that only the certifiably insane believe it, I am all for instilling in legal infants the tragic sense of life, ideas of radical evil, existential decision, the intolerable certainty of death—though I would not, of course, deny them healthy play and sufficient sunlight. I have the lunatic, indefensible conviction that it is good for them—morally and aesthetically. I realize, by some monstrous irony of history and human perversity, that the great "children's books" are among the most unbearable of all books. Take the Brothers Grimm, and [Lemuel] Gulliver, and Huck [Finn], and [Robinson] Crusoe. Like any other great work of art, they tell the truth, they tell it pitilessly; and the truths they tell are often ugly, sometimes very nearly insupportable—which is simply to say that they tell the truth. (pp. 321-22)

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We have so many ways of lying, so few of telling the truth. And lying is of the very essence of bad art. Lies are always prettier than the truth. They come in soft pastels and they smell nice. They seem more suitable—certainly for children. We tell ourselves they're not ready for the truths we know. After enough feedings, lies become the only truths they know….

The 1964 winner [of the Newbery Award] is Maia Wojciechowska's Shadow of a Bull, a book which seems to me to be a case in point. Although it contains some drawings, it is no picture book for tots. It is a short novel intended for kids who can read a sustained narrative of a certain complexity all by themselves, with no one breathing down their necks.

Shadow is a harmless little book, sweet in its way, and instructive. Among other things, it is a guide to bullfighting, its technique and mystique, both, tricked out with a glossary of terms in Spanish and English, a how-to manual, and rather vivid descriptions of the balletic moves. The small protagonist, Manolo Olivar,… is the only son of the great Juan Olivar …—the superlative numero uno, killed in the ring. All Arcangel—his Andalusian town—lives for the time when Manolo will redeem all Spain by becoming his father's even greater successor. Like a primitive people awaiting the advent of a rain-king, all Spain awaits the "birth of a bullfighter." That will be the meaning of his life, and theirs.

But Manolo, a gentle, sensitive, introspective boy, lacks the true passion, the fires of aficion—the overriding intensity of feeling for the "victory of man over death" which the Spanish call la fiesta brava, the ritual confrontation of a brave man with a brave bull. At the heart of his torment is the sacred code of pundonor—the special gravity, dignity, and solemnity which the Spanish attach to the quasi-religious idea of personal honor. (p. 322)

Manolo is a boy "who could hardly watch a fly being killed without feeling its pain, its loss." Reluctantly, doubting himself, he apprentices himself to aficionados, spectral figures whose only desire is to recreate in the boy his great father. He undergoes the arduous training—in torment; a boy preparing himself for the rigors of a kind of priesthood for which he has no true vocation.

The possibilities for fiction are interesting; but at this point the game is rigged. Starkness begins to give way to sentimentality. An old doctor—an Andalusian Lionel Barrymore—enters out of nowhere to practice his healing arts on the gored body of a matador, with Manolo's assistance. And there is no possible mistaking the form the cop-out will take. The pressure thus removed—by the author, for the sake of the gentle reader—Manolo can be allowed to vindicate himself in safety. The reader knows the boy is in good hands. No harm can come to him now. He goes ahead with his novice fight. He is superb with the cape—a young master; but he cannot go through with the faena, the approach to the kill. Such high drama as the book contains lies there—in the portrayal of the beauty and nobility, the ceremonial grace and irrational meaning of the tragic encounter in the ring. Our moral misgivings—humane, bourgeois, queasy—are made to seem irrelevant, trivial—as, indeed, they should. Not in life (that is not the point); but in this fiction.

But life need not necessitate tragic choice. Pathos can always be got round, if you are sly enough. You can have it all ways. Manolo, aged 12, can be a dazzling virtuoso in the ring. And who should appear in the stands at the fight? Who but the old doctor, looking every inch the deus ex machina? looking every inch the Way Out?

This Andalusian boy, like any other good American boy, will go off, led by that kindly light, to become a doctor, opting for the supreme middle-class choice: a long and happy life at good pay. Once again, just as we stood on the brink of some painful discovery, we have been spared. It could have been a nightmare, but mother called it a bad dream, and she knows best. Hemingway knew, sometimes anyway, that we are in fact defeated—that defeat is one of the terms of employment.

If Shadow of a Bull were not a skillful performance, my argument would be even more fatuous than it is. I return to my absurd supposition—that sensibilities are shaped by what we feed them while they are still malleable; and arguing from that suggest a spirit trained up on the aesthetic of the compromise and the cop-out cannot later be expected to stand too much reality. (pp. 322-23)

Saul Maloff, "Teaching Johnny to Cop Out," in Commonweal (copyright © 1965 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXXXII, No. 10, May 28, 1965, pp. 321-23.∗

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