In October 2011, the matador Juan Jose Padilla was gored—the word has never seemed more apt—through the eye by a bull. Through the eye in the opposite way to how we might expect. This was an exit wound. The horn came out of his eye having entered via his jaw. Served him right, of course, and one assumes he did not take it personally—unlike numerous bulls who took his previous ministrations so personally that they died of hurt. Five months later, he was back on that horse, as they say.
As this latest picture of him shows, he’s still on it and at it, sporting an eye-patch and face-saving sideburns. Rather him than me—and rather him than the bull. I know next to nothing about bullfighting—which seems more than enough—so there are a number of details here whose significance escapes me. Padilla’s outfit, for example, seems packed with symbolic meanings, many of them crustacean-related. And what’s going on with his right hand? At first glance, I wondered if some fingers had been chewed off in another incident, which, compared with the facial goring, seemed barely worth reporting. But why, in the other hand, is he holding a chicken? Some kind of magic trick, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat? A variant of waving a red rag at a bull: a way of suggesting that said bull is yellow, that he is, of all things, a pussy? Or just a fowl bit of slapstick? That seems unlikely since the main thrust of Spanish culture insists that one maintain a serious expression at all times (easy enough while watching one of Pedro Almodóvar’s so-called comedies, easier still when the economy’s gone belly-up).
Without the eye-patch, Padilla’s face looks like it was repaired by Picasso, a not inappropriate look for a tragic hero who has achieved the impossible: simultaneously embracing and surviving his fate. “I can’t see,” he shouted, Oedipus-like, after the accident. (“Well, what do you expect?” tough-minded responders might have replied. “You’ve got a bull’s horn in your eye.”) Or maybe, in the deeper ritualistic scheme of things, it’s the bull—unseen, looming in the photographic blind spot—who is the tragic figure. “What, then, is the bull’s tragic flaw?” asks Martin Amis in Experience. “That he’s a bull?”
I dunno. It’s all a mystery to me as, I’m guessing, it is to aficionados who go to bullfights for just that, for the enactment of a mystery. But I like the way that, along with the primal energies unleashed by this bloody pas de deux, it is, for one of the participants at least, not just a way of life but a job of work. Maybe the best summing-up is provided by Annie Dillard in The Writing Life: “In working-class France, when an apprentice got hurt, or when he got tired, the experienced workers said, ‘It is the trade entering his body.’ ”
So, yeah, Padilla is pretty tough. But check out the guy in the purple shirt, playing golf in the blurry background. Now that really takes some balls.