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Take the bull by the horns

[ 2010-05-21 12:52]     字号 [] [] []  
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Take the bull by the hornsReader question: In this sentence - She took the bull by the horns and was very aggressive - what does “take the bull by the horns” mean?

My comments:

Obviously it means she was very aggressive. That much is certain.

If you have ever watched bullfighting, one of the most popular as well as controversial pastimes in Spain, you’ll see that bullfighters, or matadors, never take bulls by the horns.

That says a lot about the sport, I am afraid, in which matadors are usually honored as brave and courageous. They’re nothing of the kind.

Just dirty, tricky and mean, if you see the bloody sport from the view of the bulls.

You see, a matador uses a piece of red cloth to trick the animal into lunging forward at the piece of red and as the animal passes the matador by, the latter pulls out a sward-like thin blade and knifes the raging bull on top of the back, aiming the blade at the heart and lungs underneath.

Again and again.

Matadors never, ever, take the bull by the horns. Dare not.

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that they should (take the bull by the horns). I’m just saying conventional ideas often rest on questionable premises. Bullfighting is simply not a fair sport. And therefore it would be very difficult for unbiased third parties, say, someone flying over Earth from the Mars, to accept that matadors are brave and courageous as we humans sometimes do accept them as such. In all likelihood, those from the Mars would probably consider the bulls to be braver and more courageous, foolhardy too to be sure, than any of the two legged earthlings involved.

This said, let’s steer clear of the bloody Spanish sport for the moment and return to the term in question – take the bull by the horns.

I’m sure it’s clear to you by now what it means for one to take the bull by the horns.

Yes, if you take the bull by the horns, you are willing to tackle a problem head-on, directly and not via round-about routes.

It takes courage to do that, of course, and hence if you use this term on someone, it might suggest that you admire them for their courage.

Here are media examples:

1. Presidential politics ran smack into the U.S. financial crisis yesterday. Or maybe it was the other way around.

Republican candidate John McCain, seeking to portray himself as a leader on an issue that polls show has been working against him, said he'll suspend his campaign and return to Washington to join talks over the Bush administration's proposed $700 billion bailout of Wall Street. He also said he wouldn’t take part in tomorrow’s scheduled debate with Democrat Barack Obama unless the crisis is resolved.

Obama, saying that a president must be able to handle “more than one thing at a time,” said he would continue to campaign. He said the debate should go on as planned to provide Americans a forum to evaluate how each candidate would handle the calamity that has gripped Wall Street and Washington.

McCain’s thrust and Obama’s parry added to the uncertainty of the campaign and carried risk for both candidates.

“This is a fascinating gambit, in an already fascinating election,” said Sidney Milkis, a University of Virginia political science professor. “One could say that McCain’s ‘putting country first’ would be more impressive if he were ahead, instead of behind, as many recent polls suggest.”

McCain drew support from Republicans, with Senator Mel Martinez of Florida saying he “took the bull by the horns and exercised leadership” by calling for the campaign’s suspension. Lawmakers know “the financial crisis is huge, but can't come together,” to complete legislation, he said.

- McCain, Obama Spar Over Crisis as First Debate May Be Casualty, Bloomberg.com, September 25, 2008.

2. Picasso spent almost half his life in exile in France after the civil war, during which time the Republic made him director in absentia of the Prado museum. He refused to return to Spain while Franco was alive. And, because he was a member of the French Communist party, he was never allowed to visit America.

But despite Paris’s decline during the 1950s and New York’s ascendance as the centre of the art world, Picasso never much cared that he couldn’t go there. Along with many other French intellectuals and artists, Picasso joined the Communist party in 1944 and remained a member for life. He channelled money into the party and into communist newspapers. He gave a million francs to striking miners. He made works, especially drawings, for communist-inspired peace conferences and innumerable other causes. He was, surprisingly – especially for a Spaniard of his generation – an anti-racist.

Picasso’s politics were never in doubt, though this side of him is often pushed aside for a view of the artist as a protean genius and priapic monster. He was a man of his time, shaped by his upbringing, ambition and talent (it possessed him as much as he possessed it), as well as by the events he lived through. Guernica, commemorating the destruction of the ancient capital of the Basque homeland in 1937 by German and Italian bombers, and painted the same year, remains Picasso’s best-known declaration of revulsion to fascism; but themes of war and suffering were a constant in his work. Guernica's blacks, whites and greys, as stark as newsreel footage and front-page news, were continued in works such as the less-than-successful 1951 Massacre in Korea, or the great Charnel House, now in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The current exhibition opens with Charnel House, which would alone be worth a visit to Liverpool; but Picasso’s small still lifes of the 1940s, 50s and 60s carry a similar symbolic weight, even if their meaning is more furtively delivered. They are filled with disquiet.

“Painting is not made to decorate houses,” the artist wrote in 1943. “It is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.” Picasso toiled over Charnel House slowly, between 1944 and 1945, despite the fact that the painting appears almost cursory and unfinished. It is a deceptively complex and rich painting, with an amazing tension between the subject and the language used to depict it – the slaughtered family heaped dead under a kitchen table, their bodies intertwined. The more you stare at it, the more you get entwined, too. The painting was initially inspired by documentary footage showing the assassination of a family during the civil war; the ghost of Goya’s Disasters of War hovers in its mangled stillness. This is nature morte as aftermath. An arm reaches upward, stiffened in death, the hand bloated and seamed like a baseball mitt, clutching at nothing.

As well as slaughters and still lifes, the exhibition is filled with posters, scarves, copies of telegrams from Fidel Castro and commendations from the Russian politburo. Curator Lynda Morris has spent years in the archives, gathering material. There are photographs of Picasso listening intently to speeches at a peace conference in Poland; Picasso with Soviet officials; Picasso staring at a photograph of Stalin.

All this is fascinating stuff, and details Picasso’s commitment and generosity. He handed over suitcases of cash. He protested the death by electric chair of the Rosenbergs, executed for handing over US atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. And he made his only trip to the UK to attend a peace conference in Sheffield in 1950; upon arrival at Victoria station, he was detained by immigration officials for 12 hours.


Picasso: Peace and Freedom covers its subject fitfully, and is dependent on what loans were available. Later in the show, we come to quieter images: Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe redone cartoonishly, and very late paintings of musketeers, the artist imagining himself morphing into Frans Hals, and a horny old whiskered Rembrandt. These come as something of an aside. Asked about his political views in 1968, the artist remarked that if he wanted to respond to such questions he would change his profession and become a politician. “But this, of course, is impossible,” he said. Art exists in the social world, and is political whether we want it to be or not. Picasso took the bull by the horns. His art stands up for his own individual creative freedom, but it's one that didn’t give him much peace.

- Picasso: War, peace and a life of extremes, Guardian.co.uk, May 19, 2010.



About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.


Catch phrase

Sore loser

Never look a gift horse in the mouth

Turf war

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑陈丹妮)