“Is that a swan?” I ask J. Only the neck gives it away, a shadowy curlicue standing out amid the crushed ice and frozen gloom. The bird appears to have been set into the river as the frilly, lily-like ice floes finally locked together after days of drifting downstream. The River Neris does not freeze easily; even now there are pools of water, pockets of resistance. It is an unsettling spectacle. As J and I stand there hopelessly trying to think of a rescue plan, two journalists come along and start snapping pictures. There are flecks of blood on the bird’s back; the crows encircling it have probably been pecking away at it, impatient for the swan to turn into carrion.
Is it a sign of impending misfortune? No, it is a cygnus cruelly stuck in ice. We walk on. J is disturbed, I am ruffled. We are walking fast to stay warm, following the sinuous contours of the river, trying not to slip on the ice. The river was unusually high when it froze over; the expanding ice forced the water to spill over onto the riverside pathway. “Everything is strange today,” J says. I murmur in agreement as I think about the bird starving to death while being eaten alive. J tries to think of which municipal department she should call to get help for the bird; I wonder what to have for dinner. As we approach the White Bridge, I see a young woman and her dog venture out onto the river so she can take a selfie. She is on the other side and does not see me as I angrily signal for her to get off the ice. It isn’t safe, she will fall in, she and her dog will die, all for the sake of a picture that her friends will glance at for a second or two. She ought to be more careful; selfiedom is a hazardous place where cars mysteriously crash, people topple off bridges and cliffs, bulls and bison gore you to death, terrorists blow you up, trains run you over, you spontaneously burst into flames, get washed out to sea or fall through the ice into a frozen river. The woman takes her selfie and returns to the safety of the bank.
Each bridge in Vilnius has its own stainless steel sculpture installed beneath it as part of a project to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the restoration of Lithuanian independence (Lithuania has so many anniversaries it can get confusing). The “Ray-Spear” is a 20-metre javelin sticking at a slight angle out of the White Bridge. I like some of the sculptures but not the official explanations for them. Instead, I prefer to imagine that Zeus angrily hurled his thunderbolt down to earth where it landed on a humble little pedestrian footbridge in Vilnius (rather than, say, a farm in Kansas). Why was Zeus so angry? No one knows for sure. Some say he was outraged at the low wages and high cost of living. Others say he had been spurned by a pretty supermarket cashier by the name of Birutė. Or perhaps the swan stuck in the frozen river encircled by hungry crows is his beloved Leda (Zeus threw his thunderbolt to free her but mistimed it by 6 years – a blink of an eye to him!)
Hollywood tries to manufacture myth (it has had a few laughable stabs at Zeus) using expensive special effects and words like “hero” and “epic” but it seldom rings true. Myth, by which I mean a story that taps into and resonates with a cosmic frequency, and which does not merely pitch symbolic good versus nominal evil, remains stubbornly dormant in our desolate culture. This is sad, even a tad tragic. Instead, we fumble through life doing psychic battle with inhuman Christian norms of moral behaviour, we vainly seek salvation in whatever form confers it on us (such as a voluptuously shaped bottle). Roberto Calasso wrote of the age of the Greek heroes: “Existence was beyond salvation. Life: something incurable, to be accepted for what it was, in all its malice and splendour.” Just as the swan is frozen in crystallised time, we remain stuck in the dark ages when it comes to being healthily, honestly, mythically human.
There is a sign on every bridge in Vilnius whose purpose is to try and deter people from jumping. Lithuania has long been a world leader in suicide: it currently has the highest rate in Europe and the fifth highest in the world. The sign reads: “There are people who CARE about YOU. Free emotional support helpline.” This is followed by a “hope” line number that YOU can call “day and night.” The sign even uses the less formal tu instead of jūs (third person plural), which is commonly used when addressing strangers. It is good. The sign is there. But it is not buoyant. It will not keep people afloat with hope in the slipstreams and crosscurrents and vortices of nonsense on dry land.
How is any sensitive, reasonably intelligent person supposed to get by in a world as glib, vacuous, duplicitous and philosophically barren as this? J was recently describing how her former German colleagues would constantly “laugh like hyenas”. I knew painfully well what she meant. In England you have to quip, chitchat and riposte your way through the working day: it felt so alien and exhausting that I struggled to form a facial reaction to it (as tu knows, I can’t smile insincerely). There is such intense social pressure to be outwardly upbeat that just getting through a day leaves you psychically drained. The world has become so trite that misery, which is a socially engineered iteration of far subtler states of discontentment, is explained away by crude external agency (drugs, poverty, bad luck) rather than mined for the rich vein of truth it contains. I remember going to see Scenes from a Marriage when I was 19 at an empty cinema in Boston. A man breaks down in front of his wife in their bedroom. He convulses with tears as he tells her how unbearable life is for him. I sat there and wept in gratitude at this (somewhat stagey) recognition of humanity in all its unbearable complexity and contradictoriness.
Later, a kindly teacher wrote a quote from Nietzsche in large chalky letters on the blackboard by way of an introduction to linguistics: “We won’t get rid of God until we get rid of grammar” (sic). At the time I simply understood this as a call to arms, a radical desire to commit symbolic deicide. Later still, I prefer to think it means our existence is vastly limited by our Christianity-inflected language. Where life under ancient Greek polytheism flowed and oozed (and freely boozed), we are still, over 2,000 years in, shackled by the conceptual polarity that monotheistic belief inculcated into every nook and cranny of (Western-influenced) humanity. Or let’s just call it a form of bipolar disorder, to borrow from the jargon of modern psychiatry. In my (admittedly somewhat solipsistic) head, everything flows and oozes (and freely boozes). But out there, in the highly doubtful and profoundly dubious world, I feel like tu. I am become object, thing. I feel wrong, off. I know not what I do.
When the Embankment Arch sculpture was installed by the river in 2009, an irate citizen strung up an effigy from a horizontal section of the large rusty pipe. The effigy (named Felix) dangled from it as though it/he had committed suicide. Felix even left a curious suicide note behind:
“I am Feliksas. I am asking you not to create and not to exhibit depressing artworks of outdated expression as examples of modern art. Because it’s boring. [So boring] one might hang oneself. I hope that my sacrifice will encourage the emergence of artworks that are visually stronger, more attractive, more modern, in line with the title of the European capital of culture 2009. Feliksas, who has been in Europe.” (translation by J)
I have to disagree with poor, dead Felix about the artwork in question, but I find his method of dispatching himself revealing. The anti-suicide signs on bridges in Vilnius are largely redundant because Lithuanians (men and women alike) unquestionably tend to hang themselves. I have heard many (too many) heartbreaking stories of beloved bodies dangling from rafters and ceilings. The rusty pipe sculpture that so offended Felix’s sensibilities is all about flux: historical, political, temporal, artistic. If Felix had had a bit more flux himself he might not have felt so flummoxed by a fucking pipe. And here, finally, we come to the crux of the problem. If tu don’t understand something, admit it. If tu don’t like something, don’t hate it. And if tu find life too painful to bear, try flowing free of the insular conduits and constrictive canalization of your righteous synaptic pathways.
J and I have walked 10 kilometres by the time we get back to find the swan (Leda?) still there. We have brought bread but he/she/it is too far out. There is no way we can throw a slice of bread that far, much less with the accuracy needed for the swan to be able to get at it. But there are three men in bright high-visibility vests. One is talking on the phone. The other two are busily conferring. I love these men right now. They are heroes in their bright orange vests and with their manly way of solving strange problems. J exchanges a few friendly words with them. They tell her help is on the way.
The next day the swan is gone. We search for footprints on the frozen surface of the river but find none. “Maybe they used a ladder?” J suggests. There is no obvious answer as to how our cygnine friend was liberated. There is not a forced hole in the ice, there is no trace of human activity between the riverbank and where the swan had been stuck. Perhaps the warm wastewater flowing beneath the ice melted it just enough for the bird to break free. Perhaps the swan wriggled and pecked its way to freedom. Perhaps Zeus nipped down to earth to save his feathered amour. Perhaps the ghost of Felix, which now haunts the riverside, was afraid it would turn into another depressing sculpture and got rid of it. Either way, the swan is not there, absent, gone. While life, god help us all, flows on.