This book is about art, photography, things unseen, thoughts unthought, managing fear, and, oh, bulls.
Imagine this book had one of those sound chips that are embedded in greeting cards to blare silly pronouncements or play little ditties. If this book opened to a rousing rendition by a Banda Taurina you’d be out of your seat right away. But, it doesn’t need such gimmicks to get your attention—IF you have an open mind. This book is simple only on the surface—very much like its topic. It’s easy to have an opinion about bullfighting, although it’s probably more a culturally conditioned knee-jerk reflex than a reasoned response.
“The bullfighter, in his solitary confrontation with the bull, seems always to ask this eternal question—what is it that happens or comes to pass in our lives, in death?”
Ernest Hemingway said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” Those three have two things in common: inherent danger and uncertainty of outcome. Hemingway was so taken with the subject of the nature of fear and courage that he wrote a novel about the ceremony and traditions of Spanish bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon (1932). While death is a regrettable, extreme, and unwanted byproduct of danger and uncertainty in two of Hemingway’s sports, the third has the specific purpose of ending in the demise of one of the protagonists.
The “pas de deux” reference in the book title is less ponderous than it may at first seem, not only because this ballet term means “steps of two” (in this case the bull = male and the bullfighter = female) but also because the Frenchman who is credited with coining it in the 1850s—Marius Petipa, considered the most influential ballet master and choreographer that ever lived (Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty etc.)—specifically had in mind the theatricality of highly stylized folkloric dances such as in the Spanish tradition. And once you remove the unpredictability of action/reaction from the bullfight it is nothing but stylized ritual.
Right in the first sentence of the Acknowledgments Venezuelan photographer Ricardo Sanchez calls it the “dance between light and shadow and life and death.” It is critically important that the reader not dismiss such language as mere fireworks or trite platitude. The book’s real purpose is to deal with Big Questions, not to show dashing men (there are female matadors, but not in this book) in silken purple socks and glitter suits stabbing pointy sticks into drooling animals. In that regard, a name listed right there on the book cover needs explaining: “Comment by Joseph Campbell.” This American mythologist certainly has a reputation for examining Big Questions but he died in 1987 so, obviously, he has nothing to say about this book. His “comment” consists of one single quote about the mythological connotations of the bullfight at the beginning of the book. A good quarter of the book consists of such quotes, each printed by itself on a verso page. To single out Campbell is a weak attempt at claiming intellectual heft by enlisting the halo effect of a marquee name—the book does not need this gimmick either, not least because of the other name on the cover: Rosa Olivares, who wrote a Foreword of great depth.
It is positively shocking that nothing is said about her, save for a small blurb on the book jacket flap. How can a reader know what relevance to attach to her words without knowing who she is? These days, she is director and editor of several magazines under the EXIT name. One is photography-driven and champions a visual discussion of today’s culture, another is dedicated to theory and contemporary art books, another to interviews and general goings-on in the global art scene. Beyond that she is a pillar of the contemporary art world and noted art critic and promoter. Thinking and communicating about art is her stock in trade and thus her Foreword here matters.