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Bullfighting: A celebration of death, and life

By Robert Elms, Special to CNN
  • Bullfighting ban in Catalonia is not proof the tradition is about to disappear, Elms says
  • Bullfighting is an "art form, which deals with matters of mortality and humanity"
  • "In more squeamish countries we prefer the killing of bulls hidden away in the abattoir"
  • The Iberian fighting bull lives the life of an aristocrat, before being killed, Elms says

Robert Elms is a British writer and broadcaster, author of "Spain: A Portrait After the General," and presented the series "Bullfight" on Channel 4 television.

(CNN) -- The recent vote in the Catalan parliament to ban bullfighting in the autonomous north-eastern region has led many people to conclude that this ancient Iberian tradition is about to disappear due to a wave of animal rights sentiment throughout Spain.

This couldn't be further from the truth.

Much of the impetus for the ban comes from the continued drive for Catalan separatism -- a way of distancing themselves from their hated cousins in Madrid who still flock to see the bulls in their thousands.

Just as the Spanish language is now frowned upon in Barcelona (on a recent trip I saw menus in Catalan and English, and was ignored when I spoke Spanish,) so this most potent symbol of Spanishness has been outlawed in an area where there was limited interest anyway.

As Barcelona was the only functioning ring in the entire province, this is little more than a symbolic snub, but it is still important for those of us who love the corrida -- like the many Spanish intellectuals, writers and artists who campaigned against the ban -- to put our case in favor of this unique event.

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For me bullfighting is, as the poet Lorca declared back in the 1930's, "The last serious thing," a genuinely profound art form, which deals with matters of mortality and humanity, man's relationship with nature and the unavoidable fact that death comes as the end.

On the all too rare occasions when everything runs to plan, the men are brave, the bulls are noble and the crowd is focused, it becomes a hugely moving metaphor, a breathtaking dance where both man and animal are equal partners, and both face their fate, before the essential truth is revealed and the matador dispatches one of nature's most fearsome creatures.

It is a public celebration of death, and therefore of life.

In more squeamish countries we prefer the killing of bulls hidden away in the abattoir. We want to eat the meat but don't want to be confronted with the reality that this involves death.

In Spain, always a brutally honest land, they turn this relationship between man and the animals he breeds into a performance which elevates death into an art form.

Opinion: Catalonia's bullfight ban a huge victory

But just as importantly, the life of the bull is also elevated. The Iberian fighting bull -- a thoroughbred animal, different in every aspect from its docile domestic cousin -- lives the life of an aristocrat. Where bulls in Britain live lives measured in a few short months, often in factory farmed conditions, before meeting their ignominious end, the fighting bull must reach a minimum of four years of age, living entirely wild on the finest pasture in Spain, never even seeing a man on foot, before his date with destiny in the ring. I know which I consider more cruel.

Throughout most of Spain, and indeed in the south of France and throughout Latin America, there are still plenty of people who wish to see men in the glittering suit of lights step onto the sand with this beautiful animal and act out this time honored tragedy.

Sadly the people of Barcelona, and those who visit that beautiful but truculent town, have now been denied the opportunity.