Understanding the bull

In the August 5th & 12th New Yorker, this droll cartoon by John McNamee:


To understand the cartoon, you must, first of all, recognize the figures of a bull and a bullfighter. Crucial cultural knowledge, but not (I think) especially challenging. Then there are the other details — the two of them are seated in a livingroom, the bull is having a dainty cup of tea, the bullfighter is showing the bull patches of the color red. And then there’s the caption: how does it knit some or all of these things into a joke?

Not all of it springs from a single source, but the crucial bit — without which none of it makes sense — is a folk belief:

Bulls charge at a matador’s red cape because they are angered by the color red.

which in turn depends on the knowledge that (unlike the fictional Ferdinand) bulls bred and trained for the bullring are easily aroused to charge at matadors with intent to kill.

The refined and pacific bull in #1 — call him Fred — on the other hand,  is patiently laboring to judge the relative irafacience of various shades of red, but the best he can do is say that the burgundy patch might enrage him some.  The humor then comes from the incongruity of Fred’s unnatural indifference to the triggering properties of the color red.

Brief note on McNamee. From The Nib site (“The Nib is political satire, journalism and non-fiction comics on what is going down in the world”) on the cartoonist:

John McNamee is a cartoonist and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Mad Magazine, The Onion and Clickhole. He is also the author of the long running webcomic Pie Comic.

Some facts. Bulls do indeed charge at the matador’s cape. But there’s plenty of evidence that this has nothing to do with the color red and everything to do with the matador’s movements. From the LiveScience site, in “Why Do Bulls Charge When they See Red?” by Brooke Borel on 2/6/12:

(#2) (Bullfighter photo via Shutterstock)

Bullfighting conjures a common image: An angry bull charging at a matador’s small red cape, the muleta. But, why does the beast charge at the sight of red?

Actually, it doesn’t. Bulls, along with all other cattle, are color-blind to red. Thus, the bull is likely irritated not by the muleta’s color, but by the cape’s movement as the matador whips it around. In support of this is the fact that a bull charges the matador’s other cape — the larger capote — with equal fury. Yet this cape is magenta on one side and gold or blue on the other.

… So, if a bull can’t see red, why is the muleta red? The small cape comes out in the last stage of the bullfight, when the bull meets its end, and its color helps mask one of the more gruesome aspects of a bull fight: splatters of the animal’s blood.

Fred and Ferdinand. In #1 we see Fred sipping tea. His spiritual antecedent Ferdinand instead appreciated flowers:

(#3) A Robert Lawson illustration from Munro Leaf’s 1936 book about Ferdinand, a bull who would rather sniff flowers than engage in bullfights

Subtextual pleasures. A possible nod to Ferdinand is one of the side pleasures of #1. Even better, there’s a nod to another bit of tauriana: the idiom bull in a china shop: Fred is seen sipping tea daintily from a china tea cup, thus challenging the view that bulls can’t be trusted around breakables. From the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer:

bull in a china shop: An extremely clumsy person [in a delicate situation], as in Her living room, with its delicate furniture and knickknacks, made him feel like a bull in a china shop. The precise origin for this term has been lost; it was first recorded in Frederick Marryat’s novel, Jacob Faithful (1834) [though the image was available much earlier].

The idiom has been the inspiration for innumerable cartoons. Here’s a nice one from WUMO from 3/29/16:

(#4) From Wikipedia: WUMO, formerly Wulffmorgenthaler, is a webcomic and newspaper comic strip created by Danish writer/artist duo Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler. The name of the strip is a portmanteau created from the pair’s surnames.

8 Responses to “Understanding the bull”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    Is the cartoon referring to the fact that burgundy wine is often paired with beef dishes? In Australia, there is even an organisation called the Beefsteak and Burgundy Club, where members get together for social events while enjoying good food and wine. It has many branches, including some overseas.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      A possibility, though uncastrated bulls are not a big source of beef for eating. Your typical beefsteak comes from a cow.

      But there is certainly a beef and burgundy association. There’s bœuf bourguignon, a Beef and Burgundy Restaurant in Chicago (and probably some elsewhere), and of course the Australian Beefsteak and Burgundy Club. So the reference to the color burgundy was probably calculated.

      • Robert Coren Says:

        I thought most beefsteak came from steers (castrated bulls).

      • arnold zwicky Says:

        Correction and clarification. Little beefsteak comes from uncastrated bulls, but beefsteak does come from both heifers (cows) and steers (castrated bulls), and it’s hard to tell from easily available sources what the percentages are.

  2. Robert Coren Says:

    I recall from my teenage years a feature in MAD magazine that parodied ”Ripley’s Believe it or Not”, which included an assertion that it was cows, not bulls, that were enraged by the color red, but that a bull would be angered at being mistaken for a cow.

  3. maxvasilatos Says:

    I confess I’m unsure if “the relative irafacience” means the degree to which something elicits anger, but I am guessing from context and a vague awareness of “ira” (irate or ireful) and “facience” (abortifacient) in other places.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      On the nose. Latin “ira” (Gen. “irae” as in “Dies irae”) ‘anger, rage’; “faciens” (stem “facient-“) ‘making’, the present participle of “facio, facere” ‘make’. A little learnèd joke, but (I hoped) transparent enough.

  4. The bull validates Peter’s family | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] my 8/1/19 posting “Understanding the bull”, about a John McNamee […]

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