LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 41, No.3 - Fall 1995
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas, University of Illinois at Chicago
Copyright © 1995 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
WATCHING THE SUNSET ON PALANGA BRIDGE
Two young women in the Lithuanian seaside resort Palanga are watching the sunset. I wish to emphasize that this is not an advertisement, but a so-called artistic photo taken around 1973. The women are standing on the bridge which stretches into the sea for several hundred meters. "Seeing off" the setting sun has become almost an obligatory vacation ritual in Palanga. Peacefully watching the sun setting in the nearly clear sky is the advertising label of a vacation in Palanga. A tourist booklet reads:
Look, the sun is already very low. One more minute, and it touches the water. A wide silvery trail glows across the tranquil sea. It seems for a moment that two suns meet: one from the heavens, the other from the sea. [...] Only a narrow fringe of the sun remains. The spectators grow quiet, as if wishing to hold on to it as long as possible. After a second the last pink ember of the sun vanishes...
This passage quite agrees with the principles of vacationing in Palanga. Here is another quotation from an advertisement:
In Palanga nature seems to have embodied the harmony of tranquility and balance. Summers are never hot, winters do not frighten with severe colds. The sand here is fine, as if it had been sifted through the finest sieve, soft, delicate and slippery like silk. In the resort restaurants and cafes close early. Rest and peace is the leading beat in Palanga. Nature and man are in perfect agreement with each other.
Rest at the Lithuanian seaside resort corresponds with the general vogue of heliotropism. Going to the seaside where one can get a lot of sunshine is understood as a return to nature, a departure from one's ordinary life, framing the possibility of nature's sublimation. Yet it is difficult to speak of nature's sublimation in the Kantian sense, when the observed reality coerces the imagination in a certain way. Nature affects man by its endlessness and power. That is why on this occasion Kant uses examples like: the raging ocean, high steep mountains, etc. Nature's sublimation is the realization of its greatness which arouses our admiration and respect. On the whole, searching for strong experiences and images has become one of the main purposes of spending the holidays in nature. Endless deserts, mountain peaks, forest thickets, rocks of solitary islands — these are common topics of modern holiday making. In this kind of environment, in search of strong experiences one often threatens to transgress the standards of human communication, including the conventions of dressing, in order to "liberate oneself" — in a certain time and space — and to express one's inner self "more authentically". According to the tourist guides quoted above, in Palanga man — on the contrary — is safe from any strong experiences; the day runs its course according to a strict schedule, and the vacationer is extremely socialized.
Both the quoted tourist literature and the photo under discussion belong roughly to the same period — the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. In Lithuania this was a certain social turning point: the statistics of vacationing at resorts show that approximately at that time Lithuania approached the parameters of post-industrial society. In 1959 during the holiday season 50,000 people rested in Palanga, in 1963 — 150,000, in 1985 — 500,000. At that time Lithuania had a population of 3.5 ml.; thus it is obvious that the seaside resort started attracting people not only from the major cities, but also from provincial towns and villages. Staying in Palanga in summer became a matter of prestige, later — one of habit, an attribute of "beautiful living" (certainly, according to the understanding of life imposed by Soviet reality).
Soviet border troops left only a narrow strip of the seashore to the holiday makers (it was forbidden to go to the sea at night), and the concentration of people used to be very high in Palanga. Thus a person wishing to escape from the every day's din would find himself surrounded by a crowd where, like in other fields of Soviet life, strict rules had to be observed (for example, there were lighted notices: "Silence. The town is sleeping from this to that hour" were quite in accordance with the bans on going to the sea). Obviously someone who obeys this vacation script goes to watch the sunset together with a large crowd in the evening. It is an important social act; while walking on the bridge you meet lots of people, acquaintances, and show yourself off to them. It is not accidental that one gets dressed up to go to the Palanga bridge. It is some kind of a paradox: for an evening walk one should wear comfortable, sports clothes, and here they dress up as if going to some party. Since the night life at cafes and restaurants was not developed (as was mentioned, they closed early; besides, the family budget was very limited), seeing and being seen in public became a certain highlight of the day.
Thus, the two young women have arrived at a certain Utopian space and together with others are watching a cosmic drama — the sun's disappearance below the horizon. In the photo the scene of action, i.e. the horizon with the Sun is not seen; the narrator (the photographer) faces the spectators. It is a certain actualization of a stereotypical situation when both the spectators and the sun's sinking into the sea are shown; a metaphysical principle is applied. Here the narrator is appealing to the competence of the audience belonging to the same cultural context. The title of the photo is "Having Watched the Sunset", i.e. the performance of fire approaching water and their conjunction which lasts only a couple of minutes is already over. The woman on the right is still in meditation, while the one on the left is already getting off the banister on which she has been sitting during the performance. Those who have been on the Palanga bridge know that to sit on the banister is a dangerous and even somewhat impudent act. One gets on the banister in order to better watch the contact of the sun and water, since there are lots of people on the bridge, and those who have come earlier merely obstruct the view. Yet it is from the bridge that everybody wishes to watch, and not form the beach, where no one obstructs anything; the bridge stretching into the sea is a certain expression of value of a subject's protensity (protensivité) towards an object, the intention, though illusory, of physically approaching the scene of a cosmic performance. Besides, being above the water seems to draw man even closer to nature, which was his aim in coming here. Yet I would interpret the climbing on the banister more as a wish (not necessarily conscious) to complicate the situation of perfect idyll a little, to make the senses keener (because this ascent is risky) and perhaps to be different from others. Isn't the woman's smile to herself while she is climbing off the banister the sign of a certain embarrassment to see the camera pointed at her?
The figure on the left is suspended in the air, it is not stable. The right one is more static, but it has an unsettled, resting posture. The relative stability of the right figure, the rigidity of the lines of her dress with more or less vertical and horizontal ones dominating the reserved chromaticism of the dress and the strict hairdo added, could be considered features forming a uniform style which can conditionally be called classical. The choosing of the latter term becomes more grounded when we characterize the opposite, the left figure. The left one has long, loose hair, disheveled in motion, a dress of twisting floral design with the winding cut of the collar and sleeves. If we recall Algirdas Julius Greimas' description of the shape of a drop from his essay on Michel Tournier Robinson, this figure can almost literally be called "baroque".
Now let's take a step deeper into the text, towards the poetic structure of the photo. If we distinguish four main elements in the photo — two figures, the bridge and the sea (the sky presents only the background), — it will not be difficult to notice that the painted constructions of the bridge with sharp angles are closer to the style and chromaticism of the "classical" figure, while the dynamic character of the "baroque", or "romantic" figure, the disheveled hair, which, by the way, is curly, the any-colored design of the dress etc. undoubtedly has an affinity with the glimmering surface of the sea. In this way on the abstract, graphic level two isotopes are formed: that of artificiality, stability, strict lines, monochromatic surfaces, i.e. "culture", and that of naturalness, dynamics, curved lines and flickering surfaces, i.e. "nature" or its stylization (like long, flowing hair stylizes the naturalness of hair).
The fact that the women's hairdos do not "contradict" their dresses and form a uniform style shows that both the women tend to search for, and perhaps have already found, their own style. Consequently the outer appearance should more or less correspondingly express the inner features of their temperament and state of mind. In this respect the women's postures — one of them static, the other dynamic — correspond to the stylistics of their appearance. The question arises: which one of them is more modern and fashionable. If we consider the ability to change one's appearance according to the requirements of fashion an expression of a person's dynamic character (though the situation is paradoxical: fashion allows one to break away from one's environment, to "renew' oneself, but it also levels the attempts of individualization), then this time, in this photo the isotopy of dynamics and agility will also include stylishness. Judging from Lithuanian fashion magazines, the woman of the "classical" style is dressed in 1965-1968 fashion; thus the dress raised high above the knees is a sign of old-fashionedness (we mentioned that the photo was taken around 1973) and canonic braveness. The time of switching form "mini" to "maxi" was 1969-1970; at that time fabric designs, hairdos, shoe styles also changed.
With these discussions of style and fashion we seem to return to the discourse of normal life, where a person searches for a more individual, more suitable, as he thinks, appearance, keeping pace with fashion or deliberately lagging behind it; the most important thing is that he chooses, that he has a vision of his own appearance. Yet how in this context is one to understand the fact that both women are wearing identical shoes? First, they are not fit for walking on soft sand at the seaside; I would consider them an attempt at style. Yet the codes of smart appearance and intimacy with nature intersect; on the bridge the deconstruction of created appearance and baring oneself begins. This is the end of a variety of styles, — the tactile contact of bare feet with the soft floor of the wooden bridge or the even softer warm sand is one of the promises of this Utopian space. I wish to advance the hypothesis that these women are either from the province or provincial; to have their own styles and to unify them by the same accessory can be done perhaps if novelty is considered the greater value. Then, if these assumptions are correct: a shop received pretty shoes and the friends bought them, or the friends were preparing for a trip to Palanga, they wanted to look smart, and the pretty shoes were at the shop. This lack of supply, well-known to us from Soviet times, which paralyzes any search for style and individuality, is certainly just a trifle when you think of the total restriction of choice, initiative, and fantasy in general, its uniformity, when part of the nation is stuck into barracks type housing, when one has to get accustomed to tasteless and uniform food, when poorly paid and unpromising work oppresses, and leisure is also extremely unified. These two pairs of identical shoes held in the same right hand, which undermine illusions and attempts to make life more normal under these conditions is a sign of a strange kind of doom.
According to the tourist guide quoted above, the climax of the sunset is the approaching of the two suns; by all definitions, the conjunction of fire and water is followed by silvery color characteristic of all miracles, and golden glow ("silvery trail is glowing", and "the pink amber of the sun"); yet guizzo does not happen, esthésis is not experienced, since there is no jarring shock, only the ordinary holiday rhythms.
The performance ends with the separation of the subject and the object — the sun disappears out of sight. The woman on the left changes her posture, climbs off the banister, whereas for the second one the performance continues on the cognitive level. It may be a sign of deeper contemplation; in this respect the dynamic woman is more superficial, and the static woman, the more conservative one in view of her dress, appears to regain her value. Yet there is not much hope. The esthésis described by A. J. Greimas occurs unexpectedly, jarring man from the ordinary course of events, causing a break in the isotopy of life (certainly, one should be prepared for it, but more by waiting then by searching for the flash of the Calvinistic fish to be noticed). But all we have here is the strictly planned and regulated script and certain guarantees of the travel agency. What remains after putting everything together? A rather sentimental melancholy and a lyrical mood, as the Lithuanian sublimation of nature does not at all require the menacing majesty of nature. On the Palanga beach man's feet touch soft sand, the sun which shines on him is not too hot, the wind caressing him is gentle, and it is quite possible that his rest will be quiet, silent, perhaps only a little boring. The suggestion is that one should get used to it; this monotony is turned into a value — you go to sleep on time together with the whole town, you go to watch the sunset on time, you dress up before going to the bridge, even if the shoes are identical, and then all that remains is to sit in your holiday dress on the banister so that in the crowd of people you can better see the sunset through the crowd. If we add the legends from Lithuania's pagan past constantly repeated at the seaside — how Kæstutis made a priestess devoted to the gods who kindled a sacred fire in Palanga his wife and in this way started the noblest dynasty of Lithuanian rulers, — then we shall understand the general lyric, gentle and warm mood of the vacationers. Those were the days...
Translated by Auðra Èiþikienë