Blood

Standard

Bullfighting-in-France-1899

 

Blood[1]

 

Here is what a bullfight usually is:

Inside the arena walls is staked out with boards around two-meters high an even smaller circle so that a rather wide corridor runs between the normal arena and the edge of the new one, like two little jewel cases in a game of Japanese boxes.

In this corridor are the minor figures of the troupe, the valets of the torii or the toreros, characters who are meant to liven up the spectacle with their hoots and hollering. Here, also, is where the Escamillos[2] take refuge when the animal gets too close. They get a running start, jump first onto the narrow bench that encircles the interior and then take a dive, their feet waggling in the air, into the safe corridor. This somersault is very funny.

The arena is terribly vast, so vast that at the most dramatic moments—when the toreador’s pants are about to be torn to shreds, for example—there are always, on the other side, some of his colleagues sitting calmly, chatting away, like on the terrace of a café in Puerta del Sol[3].

First in the arena is the cuadrilla: toreros, prima spade, etc., a dozen men very black, very wiry and quite puny-looking. They are smooth-faced, clean-shaven, like actors, but actors who have powdered themselves with coal; their upper bodies are buried under all the accouterments like petticoat accessories; they wear white pants that go down below their knees in the manner of schoolboys. And they wear stockings that are really pink, like the young ladies in the Revues of tawdry cabarets. These men do not leave the arena from start to finish. They are the line of defense, the infantry.

#

The cavalry is represented by the caballeros en plaza, first of all: young men apparently from good families who have devoted their lives, their energy, their future, all the power of their hearts and minds to the destruction of bulls.

The spectacle begins with them. Two of them come in the parade in a gilded coach like Cinderella’s pumpkin; then on beautiful horses that they twirl around this way and that before breaking into a sprint. These are the gentlemen who have the honor and joy of spilling the first drops of blood by sinking their banderillas into the animal’s neck. The banderillas are very fragile staves decorated with paper, like kite tails, that are topped by an iron tip, about a finger long, very sharp, which are planted straight into the flesh like knife blades.

After them come the picadores, dressed like Mexican hacienderos, with their “Forts de la Halle” hats[4] and their iron greaves like King Francis I. They hold strong, very sharp pikes that stick well. When they come into the ring the Spanish public start to have fun. The animal’s neck is hacked up; the living flesh is in pain, twitching, swelling, bruised. Blood flows over the rough, quivering skin.

The picadors ride poor, bony nags with no defense except their skin on bones, quivering in fear behind their blindfolds. Their chests are protected from the thrusting horns by an iron plate hanging around their necks like a priest’s collar. But their flanks, bellies and crotches are bare.

#

Then there is the bull.

The bull is most often small, the size of a healthy calf. The tips of its horns are rounded off so that it cannot really defend itself and they can torture it at will without running too much risk. When it arrives, it is astonished or rather delighted to be out in the open air, and God knows how hard the whole cuadrilla has to strive to make it a little angry.

With the first wound comes surprise, a painful astonishment that they are hurting it for no reason at all. This is often translated into a melancholic bellowing, a call to some unknown stranger. And with many of them this astonishment lasts until the finale along with a persistent desire to flee, which constantly compels it back to the gate of the toril.

When the cows that are responsible for driving it into the arena survive, the unusual joy of deliverance fills its teary eyes—and it follows them as quickly as it can on its weary legs, swinging the banderillas that are stuck in its wounds and leaving behind it, on the sand, a trail of blood.

Behind the gate of the toril, the butchers await its passage with raised clubs…

#

Thus is the usual bullfight and a few sensitive souls, who are, of course, ridiculous!, see an inequality between this unarmed animal and all the armed men.

On Tuesday things went differently and here is what they saw:

A bull, all of a sudden, rushed at a horse and stuck a horn in its belly between its two hind legs. It stood there like that for almost five minutes—digging around… The picador got up quickly after rolling on the ground, but the horse, blindfolded, not knowing where the agonizing torture was coming from, stood motionless, trembling and fainting on its four legs.

Blood squirted a little, then a little more; then it came gushing out.

Suddenly the bull pulled back and the horse dropped in a heap. The horn—rounded off you understand!—had gored its belly, ripped out its guts, which lay next to it, green, blue, yellow, in the ever-flowing purple blood.

The Spaniards up above were laughing so hard there were tears in their eyes. M. de Morenheim, the German ambassador, and Prince Troubetzkoy, who were not exactly children or sissies, got up and left their box while the French audience ran off with cries of horror and a number of woman slumped over and fainted.

So the horse struggled up and got its legs tangled in its entrails, trampling them under its hooves so that half of them remained in its belly while the other half lay twitching in the sand, after which they led it out of the arena at a trot.

Well, for a good bullfight, wasn’t that a great fight?

#

Is it because people have no bread that they give them games?

I am scared of these games for their sakes—I am especially scared for the others.

The only time I went to the Bullring—assurance given that no blood would be spilled, that it would only be a show of skill and agility—was on a Sunday and the upper bleachers were overflowing. It wrenched my heart—being French and a woman who knew the people well, who lived among them, who knew how horribly drunk their frustrated minds could get on the sight and smell of blood.

Being French I think you have to “stay home”, protect the customs that were our fathers’, keep intact the patrimony of civilization that they bequeathed to us and that we must not diminish but increase every day for the heritage of our children.

France can carry its arts and industry abroad, all the beneficent rays that spring from its heart and brain. It is the warmth and the light. It abets the intelligent, protects the weak, defends the oppressed. As imperfect as its social organization is, it is still a maternal, tender nation whose fits of anger are reckless, bloodying only its own breast. It has not propagated cruelty throughout the world and though it knows suffering for its duty, it has never preached nor condoned suffering for pleasure.

If a syndicate of high and mighty French men were formed tomorrow to spread French influence beyond its borders, it would build a theater where they could put on our dramatic masterpieces or a palace where they could display our artistic ones; it would establish some charity of lofty assistance for those wounded in war or disinherited by poverty—only the blood of roses would flow, in wide petals, at the feet of beloved artists who would hold in their small hands the laurels of Art or the purse of Charity.

#

I have just written something that in hindsight makes me shiver:

Suffering for pleasure! This is the typical mark of all decadent empires. Rome and Byzantium had their games in the circus—and the Barbarians arrived, trampling the beautiful civilizations, burning the libraries, decapitating the gods, pushing the world back a century into the darkness of chaos.

Suffering for pleasure! This is the most immoral, the most dreadful thing in the universe. When it is condoned—whether it be to amuse the crowd or to distract a black king—man returns to his primitive state, a savage in the caves in the age of cannibals.

From animal pain to human pain is a short, swift leap and we are closer than we think to the King of Dahomey who, after being raised with us, considers his subjects as animals and forces them slowly to their knees just to relieve his boredom.

Suffering for pleasure is forbidden by all nations that have dignity, even among those that condone the cruelest of punishments.

Formerly, at the Barrière du Combat[5], there were battles between dogs and bears here. The bears were muzzled but the dogs were given free rein. It was pretty much a bloody free-for-all; sometimes they threw other animals to the pack: who hasn’t read L’Ane mort et La Femme guillotine by Jules Janin[6]?

King Louis Philippe banned this vile slaughter.

In England cock-fights, rat-fights and dog-fights have to take place in secret because the queen’s government has strictly forbidden them. This is the example the past has given us. This is the example that the country most famous for its brutal fisticuffs and its haughty cold-heartedness has given us.

It is because suffering, truly, cannot be condoned except as an inevitable fatality, a result of a disaster or from the old remnants of barbarism that are left in us. If a few mourn the battlefields over which the idea of patriotism floats, if others, even fewer, regard the hell where modern slaves agonize, the vast majority, more worried about living than thinking, accepts what it believes it cannot prevent.

But it is a long way from this resignation to the joy of seeing a creature suffer, to gather to watch this suffering, while wearing the latest fashions, and to like it the more the victim struggles against the unjust torture.

To say with delight that steel hurts flesh, to quiver with pleasure at quivering pain, to clap your hands because a crime has been committed under a dispassionate sky—but whose justice still sits behind its azure veil, you can be sure!—to yell “Bravo!” because blood has been spilled—is this French, is this feminine?!

Woe unto the people who have lost the divine sentiment of pity!

Above all, woe unto those who have made them lose it!

If in these foreign celebrations there were only spoiled rich boys and their consorts, artists and socialites, the thing would be none the better, but would be less fraught with danger.

But again, look up at those benches where your snobbish eyes are never trained! There is a huge audience of executions, their necks stretched out, with hungry lips, hoping that they will see “some red on the road.” There are also some good people there who have come for the first time out of curiosity, who will come back a second time for pleasure, a third time out of savagery—when they will have awakened the abominable human beast within!

You get used to the blood, you tell yourself rightly, and when a red pool is on the ground, who except for experts could say whether it came from a four-legged or two-legged animal.

Of all the men butchers are the ones who stab the quickest because they are accustomed to death and they cut their bread with the same knife that cuts throats.

The idea of putting animal killers in the same basket as those who might kill people is so obvious that in a newspaper on the eve of May 1st—unjustly?—they made the murder and maiming of a hundred and fifty helpless sheep a general cry of alarm in Pantin.

Blood will have blood, I say. The day when the people are used to seeing horses gutted “for entertainment” is the day when they will gut you in your houses “for fun”!

Think about it…

 

[1] Le Rappel, May 14 1890.

[2] From the name of the toreador in Bizet’s opera Carmen.

[3] In the heart of Madrid.

[4] Large, wide hats, very much like sombreros, ringed with lead that allowed the “packers” to carry heavy loads on their heads inside Les Halles, the wholesale marketplace in Paris.

[5] In the 19th arrondissment of Paris, one of the old gates where they would collect taxes. Here it allowed the bloody spectacles to take place outside the city.

[6] The Dead Donkey and the Guillotined Woman, a novel published in 1829.

Advertisements

13-Sugar Strikes and Bullfights

Standard

Séverine-1899

They accused Séverine of causing the death of Max Lebaudy on December 24 1895. Her battle with him had started with the Sugar Strike and continued with the corridas before ending in the scandal that resulted in his death.

Max Lebaudy was the son of a rich industrial sugar producer who had inherited a vast fortune. He was called “The Little Sugar King” and in the words of Ernest Vizetelly[1] “an imbecile son who wandered about the world calling himself Emperor of the Sahara.” He was a player, a ladies’ man, a vain and idle fop with a passion for horse racing, gambling and girls, but his 27 million F was acquired off the backs of the “casseuses de sucre”, the sugar crackers.

From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the factories of Lebaudy, Sommier or Lucas women packed sugar into crates that they then hauled to the scales to weigh. Forty trips and a thousand kilos a day. Exhausting, painful and sometimes deadly work. The women had their stomachs, lungs, fingernails and teeth eaten away by the corrosive dust. For their labor they received 60 centimes per 100 kilos. In September 1892 the sugar producers announced a lowering of the salary by 10 centimes per 100 kilos. Take it or leave it. The workers refused to take it and went on strike. The factories got to work hiring scabs, which were never wanting in those times of poverty and unemployment. Lower wages made it impossible for the workers to live, but the politicians refused to take an interest in the matter and without the privilege of voting, the women were left to fend for themselves.

At the same time, a brand new paper, Le Journal, was coming out and its editor, Ferdinand Xau, had asked for Séverine’s collaboration to guarantee its success. It was the perfect opportunity. She decided to play the scab. Just being a witness, as she was in the mines, was not enough for her. She wanted to live what she was describing, to feel what the workers felt, to identify with her subject. So, she decided to go down to rue de Flandres, disguise herself as a worker and get hired into the factory. Unfortunately when she got there, the quota was full and they were hiring no more for the day. That did not discourage her, however, and she found another way into the factory life, which she described in her article “The Sugar Crackers.”

A couple of years after the sugar strike, Séverine ran up against Max Lebaudy once again. His latest fantasy was bullfighting, which was becoming more and more popular in France despite it being illegal. On his property of Maisons-Laffitte where he already had a private racetrack, he decided to build an arena. Dressed up as a toreador he presided over the death of bulls and horses in his corrida del muerto. Now, Séverine had been campaigning against bullfighting for years and here was another opportunity not only to denounce the barbarous “sport”, but also to strike out at the “cruel and evil little boy,” the “Spanish tripe-seller,” as she called him. However, Lebaudy had money and influence but even George Labruyère’s attempts to dissuade her went unheeded.

Back in 1890 Séverine’s love of animals had led her into a merciless campaign against bullfighting in the arena on rue Pergolèse in Paris, which had been built the year before. Her attacks against the horrors of bullfighting earned her the malice and rancor of many people, but she never threw down her weapons. As she admitted, “I love the poor first; then animals; and people after.” Later that year in 1890 they forbid the killing of bulls during the spectacles. Without the bloodletting the public soon abandoned the bleachers and the arena closed its doors in 1893.

For two years, from 1890-1892, Séverine wrote articles for Le Rappel that were almost completely limited to her campaign against bullfighting. But this was not her only fight for animals’ right to well-being. Back in 1888 she revolted against Lozé, the Paris prefect, who declared war on stray dogs; she would stop and chide coachmen who abused their horses; she herself adopted animals off the street: Tiote and Mégot, then Sac à Tout coming off Boulevard Montmartre joined Rip to make four dogs to accompany her along with Coco Bleu the parrot and a one-eyed cat. Her ceaseless fight for animal rights was rewarded in 1900 with the Prix Blouet by the Society for the Protection of Animals.

So, the world is like a vast corrida that people get drunk on and they will pay to watch the slaughter even if it is illegal. But no matter how rich and influential you may be, you are not above the law. Or so she thought when she started a violent campaign against the little sugar king who was shirking his military obligations—a little war that grew into one of the great scandals of the day was on. The eccentric wastrel claimed to be ill in order to finagle his way out of mandatory military duty. When he boasted of buying off the doctors, Séverine went on the warpath, reviling his avoidance of the blood tax, which was an insult to all the men dying, justly or not, on the African savannas, in the mountains of Madagascar and in the rice fields of Tonkin. Lebaudy answered by paying off the press, handshakes for some, shaking fists for others; he used all his influence against her and it worked. Instead of congratulating her courage in defying him, they criticized her.

However, as a result of all the clamor, the authorities decided enough was enough and they put him in the military hospital at Amélie-les-Bains in the eastern Pyrenees where soldiers returning from Madagascar were housed. The first thing he did was to finance a velodrome so he could ride his bicycle every day, a special treatment for his special case of tuberculosis, which the doctors at first could not detect. The real sickness came on suddenly, perhaps contracted from a real patient and he died on Christmas Eve 1895. His death, although it could not be put down to military service (more likely just the result of his fast living), turned him into a martyr. Séverine became his executioner. The press unleashed against her, holding her somehow responsible for his premature demise. In spite of all their slander and abuse, her conscience, however, was clear.

On the other hand, Georges Labruyère once again became a thorn in her side. In January 1896 he was arrested for blackmail: they accused him of taking up to 25,000 F to make Séverine lay off her offensive. He claimed that the proposition was made to him, but he refused it knowing perfectly well that not even he could pressure Séverine into doing anything against her will. Eventually he was acquitted for lack of evidence, but was he innocent? The truth would never be known, but this one final doubt, the last vestige of trust broken, spelled the end of their intimate relationship.

In the investigations that followed Lebaudy’s death, it was his legal advisor Lionel Werther de Cesti who was found guilty of embezzling from his fortune, of substituting stolen samples of tuberculosis in the hospital and of paying off witnesses to disappear. He was sentenced to one year in prison and given a 500 F fine.

Séverine was cleared of all responsibility in Lebaudy’s death, but despite the support of popular colleagues such as Octave Mirbeau her position as a journalist was damaged. She was both respected and feared, but newspapers had to protect their resources, their funding, which often came through secret funds from the government or the magnates of industry, and she was a threat. She was a fire ship and no one ever knew where she would strike or what she would do next.

[1] Paris and Her People Under the Third Republic, 1919.