The matador who received top billing was not, as advertised, the most famous bullfighter in Spain but rather (we guessed) his son, or perhaps his nephew or second cousin; also, the promised dinner with this matador, to have been arranged by a (self-identified) associate of the Plaza Monumental in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, the evening before the fight failed to materialize. Nevertheless, the afternoon of April 3, 1994—Easter Sunday—witnessed some of the best bullfighting Jim Rauen and I had seen in four seasons, climaxed by a superb performance by an improbably small torero, hardly bigger than a dwarf, named Adrian Flores, previously unknown to us but with a fighting style comparable to that of the late Juan Belmonte. Flores was particularly brilliant with his first bull, which he passed so close to his body that his scarlet-and-white suit was repeatedly smeared with blood, and placed the estocada with precision high between the shoulders so that the:bull collapsed in seconds: el presidente held out one handkerchief at the conclusion, then a second in response to the frenzied admonition of the crowd, and Flores’ men cut two ears. At the start of his second fight, Flores in a departure from custom had the ring cleared and then, taking a position before the gate marked TORILES, knelt on both knees with his pink-and-yellow cape spread in the sand before him and awaited the charging bull, which he passed with aplomb on his right side while the crowd screamed and huzzaed. “I wouldn’t want to be that guy’s insurer,” Jim said, “He could just as easily have taken a horn in the chest.”
A very large billboard, planted in the New Mexican desert along Interstate 25 between Albuquerque and El Paso and much admired by Jim and me for the past couple of years, reads “NEVER HURT A CHILD. NEVER NEVER NEVER” in stark black letters on a white background. Or a woman. Or a serial killer. Or a bull. So what if the child deserves a whipping, your wife has betrayed you with your worst enemy, the killer is itching to bloody his knife again, and a fighting bull likes nothing better than a fight to the death? NEVER NEVER NEVER. It is the voice of the American enlightenment, crying out in what alas is no longer a wilderness against post-civilized man’s worst embarrassment, greatest horror, and ultimate scandal: violence. For at least three decades now, violence has been the highest reproach flung in the faces of the American people by their severest critics both at home and abroad. America, its citizens are lectured ad nauseam, has the most violent record in the history of great nations, a tale of bloodshed, mayhem, and destruction perpetuated in the present time by the Second Amendment and the survival of a bloody nationalist mythology, much of it the product of the imperialist enterprise that was once identified in children’s school books as the Winning of the West and has lately been opposed by a counter-mythology whose essential weakness is that it is incomplete, being neither radical enough nor all-encompassing.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian probably gives the grimmest picture of the American West ever written, yet it is no indictment of but rather a dark paean to the region, its human history, and its metaphysical heart. McCarthy takes no sides and indulges no favorites: all his characters—Anglo, Mexican, and Indian—are not merely agents but angels of violence, adjunct and expression of a land itself violent and pitiless, over which the spirit of violent death incessantly broods. What preserves Blood Meridian from nihilism is the profound naturalness of even its most horrific action, the postulation of violence as an aspect of metaphysical truth. Violence in Blood Meridian may not be cleansing but, despite its bizarre terrors, it is clean: clean as the sharply eroded landforms, the rock piles, and the crystalline air that form the setting of the novel.
The secret behind the heartbreaking, ineffable beauty of the Western landscape is death, its most obvious symbols being the limitless vistas of light and shadow and the circling turkey buzzard into whose black greasy form, surmounted by the fleshy red head, Edward Abbey professed to hope his soul might transmigrate. As Cactus Ed never failed to insist, the West—the desert West especially—is no place for the timid and the squeamish. Terrible things easily befall man or woman in a country that appears to have been designed for a race of giants and heroes, not for puny human beings; here sheer precipices more than half a mile in height yawn suddenly under one’s feet, blizzards arise in minutes from which the unprepared never emerge, violent electrical storms break from a cloud that an hour earlier was no larger than a walnut, deceptive distances call the unwary to deposit their bones for discovery a quarter-century hence, or never. Flash floods, forest fires, hailstorms; disorientation, hypothermia, heatstroke; snakebite, bear attack, avalanche. Almost the only danger to have been eliminated from those parts since the last century is the Indians, who are nowadays a menace mostly to themselves.
The Navajo reservation whose eastern end, lapsing over the northeastern Arizona border into northwestern New Mexico, lies athwart my route of travel between Kemmerer and Juarez offers, as do most of the Western Indian impoundments, a depressing example of a culture in which honest violence has been replaced by something much worse. The Navajo, like their cousins the Apache, are an Athabascan people who drifted down to the Southwest from Alaska between 600 and 800 years ago; by the time Kit Carson arrived with an American army in the 1860’s to subdue them, their reputation for fierceness was so great among the neighboring tribes that warriors belonging to the Utes and Pueblos eagerly joined the campaign. Navajo regularly engaged in casual kills for the purpose of augmenting their own flocks with a few of somebody else’s sheep or goats, yet even they were not killing machines like the Apache and Comanche (who invented practices like drilling holes in the tops of the heads of their enemies and cooking them slowly upside-down over open fires until their brains bubbled out as an effective means of dealing with their aboriginal cousins and, only later, with the white men). While there are exceptions to the rule— notably the Papago and other Piman tribes, who were peaceable agriculturalists—a major cause of the degradation and despair endemic to most Indian reservations in the West today is the deprivation of these immediate descendants of warrior cultures of a principal traditional activity—namely killing—for which they have failed to discover a profitable and pleasurable substitute. Forcibly advanced from primitivism to decadence in a few generations by the conquering civilization, they have been tempted to redirect violence against outsiders inward, against themselves, by alcoholism, drug addiction, murder, and—increasingly—by suicide. Five years ago, while skulking among the Navajo, I met a 16-year-old boy who was eager to show me Avon Lady, an ancient crone who spent the hottest part of the June day at the Tuba City dump, wrapped in heavy blankets while she sat in a folding chair sniffing discarded nail polish bottles. The boy had recently returned from a week in the desert where he tended his grandmother’s sheep; as we stood on the rim of White Mesa watching a pillar of dust rise from the desert floor a mile or more into the hot blue sky, he asked me what I thought of “the res.” When I told him I thought it was very beautiful, he shook his head. “I think it’s boring.” He expected to spend the rest of the summer branding cows, but what he wanted to do was go to Phoenix. “I’m the only man in my family not to be an alcoholic, yet,” he remarked with pride.
Perhaps, after all, there is something to be said for the claim made by the Mexicans and the Indians that the Southwest remains spiritually their country. Certainly the bland and busy Anglo culture that the Americans have imposed upon the region is a skin-deep artificiality, vulnerable not only to the ever-present (and ever-deepening) water crisis but to historical processes and to the nature of the land itself. No more than a glance at the burnt-out cones and crags of southern Arizona is needed for the sympathetic viewer to understand that bull rings, not golf courses, are appropriate here. Yet when, a year ago, an article of mine in praise of the bullfight appeared in the Arizona Republic, the response from readers was outraged and prolonged: only, it seemed, the Mexican consul in Phoenix, who had recently been incensed by my remarks in another context regarding constitutional rights in Mexico, failed to protest.
The traditional Spanish corrida is rich in meaning, of which the most significant is this: that death is not the worst thing we find in life. And since this profoundly moving ritual is substantially the historical product of a great Catholic culture, it should not be surprising that the bullfight and traditional Catholic piety have a shared understanding of the nature of violence and of its place in a fallen world. That understanding, of course, is the polar opposite of the modern American public’s loathing, based almost entirely upon sentiment, of violence in all its manifestations, from bullfighting and duck hunting to capital punishment and the use of firearms even in self-defense. If it is true, as it probably is, that the West has been perceived as the national epicenter of violent behavior throughout the history of the American Republic, then the meaning of violence is just one more lesson that Western civilization has to teach the effete, denatured subjects in other parts of the country: an object for contemplation of far greater importance than the geysers of the Yellowstone. All the national keening and handwringing to the contrary, what the United States needs today is more violence, not less of it, and a commensurate willingness to examine violence unshrinkingly in order to learn its place in the life of man and its role in the history of mankind (as, for example, of the ancient Greeks and the early Church). Two days ago as I write, a 10-year-old boy in Butte, Montana, angered by an argument with another student the day before, aimed a .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol on the playground and fired, killing the child standing next to the intended target. Naturally the response to the shooting involved the usual hysteria—”Butte has joined the world”—and batteries of psychologists have been dispatched to assist and comfort the walking emotionally wounded. But terrible as the incident was, there is surely nothing untoward in a child’s being confronted by the reality of violent death, a routine-enough occurrence before the arrival of the sheltering and sentimentalist modern era. Today, in addition to death, children must face the ordeal of fortress-footed female psychiatrists bearing down in the aftermath of terror, armed with notebooks stuffed with government documents, to torment them in their grief and in the pain of their budding knowledge of the world. Even if American adults cannot grow up, that is no reason why their children shouldn’t.
The grandeur of the bullfight is the expression of its central task of submitting violence and death to the forces of control, which is also the meaning of so-called sport hunting and of premodern warfare. Compare these activities with such postmodern forms of violence as gang war and the urban mugging, which are by contrast uncontrolled, vicious, and without recourse to elementary human awareness. Is it possible that a society in which children are exposed from birth to the killing of wild animals, the butchering of domestic ones, and occasional armed skirmishes between tribal enemies is incapable of the violent anarchy that recently reached its apparent climax at the Robert Taylor public housing development in Chicago? History has no record of the Pueblo Indians in their cliffside apartments behaving like that.
For reasons ranging from the metaphysical to the political, Americans today have an interest in contemplating, cultivating, and practicing the reality of violence—the right sort of violence; not in shutting their eyes and turning their backs on it, or deploring its continued existence as an anachronism that a “civilized” people ought to have outgrown. The prophets of old are hardly paid attention anymore, yet of their prophecies the one that may well rise up soonest to confound contemporary Americans in their staggering ignorance and naiveté is this from St. Matthew (11:12): “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”