Updated: Aug 27, 2018
Why leave your love? I search for answers in Call Me by Your Name (the film & the book), and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
This post is part of Sapienism’s quadruple symposium dedicated to Luca Guadagnino's 2017 film, Call Me by Your Name. This particular piece, I’m afraid, is not just uncivilly lengthy, but way too grim. So brace yourself - a long, winding, and bumpy, road awaits. But if you make it to the other side, I promise – I’ll be waiting there for you. Later!
“Why spoil?” was my wife’s reaction to the words you are about to read, “it’s such a beautiful film, why can’t you just accept it for what it is – a summer of love?”
I wish I knew why, I thought. But instead said: “That’s exactly it – if it’s so beautiful, why does it have to end, the way it did?”
“Because that’s just the way it is,” echoed in my mind the devastating answer.
People who know me know I abhor spoilers. I may have taken this aversion a bit too far. A song from the soundtrack, an arresting image, an intriguing passing remark, is often enough to spark my curiosity, and send me to the silver screen. And as with books, if my friends think I’ll like it, I’ll probably go for it (eventually). Until then, I try to avoid even the faintest of background information, be it a one-line synopsis or even a poster. I want to meet the characters on screen, and be there, with them, without preconception. Most of all, I want to experience their dilemmas – to stand together at their crossroads, get an immediate sense, even sensation, of their choices. Film critic Roger Ebert once said: “The characters in movies do not always do what we would do. Sometimes they make choices that offend us. That is their right. It is our right to disagree with them. It is not our right, however, to destroy for others the experience of being as surprised by those choices as we were.” I agree. And so, if you haven’t watched Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name, please do before you read on. It’s a truly wonderful film, both studious and sensuous.
I want to meet the characters on screen... to experience their dilemmas – to stand together at their crossroads, get an immediate sense, even sensation, of their choices.
I read somewhere that Call Me by Your Name is an enchanting love story. That was all I needed to know to want to watch it. But then a fraught friend sent me a YouTube link to a scene, reassuring me it’s not a spoiler. Upon watching it – a moving monologue of a father to his son – I couldn’t help thinking: “it sure looks like a spoiler to me, and definitely sounds like one!” But the damage was done, and since I’m not in the habit of erasing memories, I decided: however spoiled, I’m not going to give up on beauty or love. And beautiful this film is – hauntingly so. Is it also a love story?
“Summer 1983, Somewhere in northern Italy,” the film’s opening credits reveal – to unveil Cupid’s playground. The mischievous god is shooting his arrows all over this heavenly haven, where Elio’s family live, and where Oliver will soon appear, to work for Elio’s father, an archeologist. The excavation of desire in this summertime garden of Eden commences.
With Eros leading the way, Elio and Oliver tease one another, until they can’t get enough of each other. We can now lustfully sigh and cite Vergil (with a heavy Latin accent), Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori: “Love conquers all; and so let us surrender ourselves to Love.”
If it’s love Elio and Oliver surrender to, of what sort is it? Age-gap love, gay love, Jewish love, just love – or, perhaps, none of the above? That Oliver is 24-years-old and Elio seventeen might be an occasion for exploring the “age of consent.” That both are men, adoring ancient sculptures of figures who “dare you to desire them,” invites us to revisit the artisanship of homoerotic romance. That both are Jews, sending lustful signals through a Star of David necklace, fuses collective with private longing and belonging. But above all, Elio and Oliver want it all – body and mind, flesh and soul.
In The Symposium, Plato may as well have been writing about Elio and Oliver, bonding in bed, calling each by the other’s name. Zeus, we’re told, had “a lesson of humility” to humans: splitting each in two halves. With this, each “is always looking for his other half… And so, when one of them meets his other half, the actual half of himself, whether he be a lover of youth or a lover of another sort, the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment… For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover's intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment… And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.”
when one of them meets his other half, the actual half of himself... the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy
Elio and Oliver would surely thus call their bond, but I have my doubts. “Is it better to speak or to die?” Elio asks Oliver, and courageously decides to show and tell, initiating their affair. And it is intoxicating, for them – and for us, the viewers. Guadagnino’s first installment in his Desire trilogy proudly declares, on behalf of its female protagonist, I Am Love (reminding me of Cavalcanti's haunting Certe mie rime a te mandar vogliendo). This last, third, installment effectively declares the same of itself. Call Me by Your Name is Love – a piece of cinematic seduction if ever there was one.
And yet, for me, what makes this film so seductive also makes it somewhat sad. Watching it, I felt that such true and deep love is rarely seen on screen, from its hesitant to bold exploration, as the couple forge their bond, their “two in one.” Then the train comes, and it’s gone. Facing the railway, neither of them saw it as a crossroad, neither saw it as a real dilemma – just a fixed fact of life both should grudgingly and gradually reconcile themselves to: treating their love as summer, a season destined to die.
I know, I’m naively romantic, but it baffles me: why would soulmates just give it all up? Why did Oliver leave, why did Elio stay? From one train station to another, my mind wandered from Elio and Oliver to Céline and Jesse in the first installment of Richard Linklater’s trilogy (Before Sunrise). Céline and Jesse didn’t spend a whole blissful summer together, just one magical day in Vienna, but that was enough for them to take charge, and make a choice – deciding to meet again six months later at the same platform (at the conclusion of the sequel, Before Sunset, an even bolder choice awaits).
Why didn’t Elio and Oliver at least try to do the same?
Why was paradise lost?
The Forbidden Fruit
Seeking answers, I turned to good old John Milton, who devoted his epic Paradise Lost to shed light, through his blind darkness, on that very puzzle, to think and speak –
Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden…
The main culprit seems to be Satan, “the lost Archangel,” who rebelled against God, and lost, but still retains a divine-like Mind, capable of imagining heaven, if not of creating it:
The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav'n of hell, a hell of heav'n.
Satan then makes up his defiant mind:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.
It’s not mere liberation that Satan seeks (inspiring many recent translations, echoing powerfully in the Arab World); he desires domination. Satan is driven by rage against God and by jealousy of humans, and one human – Adam, God’s new favorite – in particular.
Satan wants revenge, though he knows, “Revenge at first though sweet / Bitter ere long back on it self recoils.” He finds courage in despair:
So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear, Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost. Evil, be thou my good.
Still Satan, however mindful, hopeless and vengeful, could not have done it alone. Divine intervention evidently helped him find his way into, and within, paradise (I wonder, was Uriel, allegedly “the sharpest-sighted spirit in all of Heaven,” careless or complicit in allowing Satan’s entry?).
But most of all, losing paradise required humans. A thoughtful friend once asked me, “How could Adam and Eve sin if they were innocent?” A very fine question. True enough, they were disobedient to God. But before eating the forbidden fruit – from the tree of knowledge of good and evil – they knew not right from wrong, and thus could not sin (let alone be very original about it).
It’s no accident that Eve is the first to eat the forbidden fruit; she is, as Milton has it, the more curious of the couple, and certainly the more adventurous. Unlike the scholarly Adam, who leisurely chats with God, then sits around waiting for Raphael to tell him what it’s all about, Eve seeks knowledge independently, and through experience. She particularly wants to know about her own origin, partly by looking at her own, beautiful, self-reflection, and indeed – Eve desires beauty too.
Eve seeks knowledge independently, and through experience
No wonder she needs some alone time, and clueless Adam wishfully agrees, “For solitude sometimes is best society, And short retirement urges sweet return.” With Eve alone, Satan comes along, and her reflections wonder about God’s motivations:
In plain then, what forbids he but to know, Forbids us good, forbids us to be wise? Such prohibitions binde not. But if Death Bind us with after-bands, what profits then Our inward freedom?
Eve takes a faithful leap, and munches the moral fruit of “inward freedom.” Awakened, she understands that her new knowledge can compensate for what she lacks in strength, compared to Adam,
And render me more equal, and perhaps, A thing not undesireable, somtime Superior: for inferior who is free?
But Eve soon realizes also the burden of freedom: fear of death, the lurking loneliness, and jealousy. A horrible thought comes to her mind: starting as nothing but a “lifeless rib,” she’s surely replaceable by God for, and by, his beloved Adam. What if God punishes her as he had promised to do –
And Death ensue? then I shall be no more, And Adam wedded to another Eve, Shall live with her enjoying, I extinct; A death to think. Confirm'd then I resolve, Adam shall share with me in bliss or woe: So dear I love him, that with him all deaths I could endure, without him live no life.
Eve, now knowing right from wrong, is finally free – she can choose, reason, act, and take responsibility – to do good, and commit sin. And freely she makes her first true choice: to take (down?) Adam with her – for love till death do them part.
When free Eve approaches him, Adam first recoils, “How art thou lost, how on a sudden lost,” but then quickly echoes Eve’s fear of losing him:
How can I live without thee, how forgoe Thy sweet Converse and Love so dearly joyn'd, To live again in these wilde Woods forlorn? […] Our State cannot be severd, we are one One Flesh; to loose thee were to loose my self.
If Eve envied Eve II, Adam was jealously possessive of Eve I, seeking not to attain “two in one,” but sustain “two as one”: one flesh and of one mind, though presumably equal in neither. Still, their love, though fed by fear, is stronger than death. Both resolve to defy it, both rather die or live in pain – than be separated.
Eve grasps the significance of their mutual choice and rejoices: “O glorious trial of exceeding Love, Illustrious evidence, example high!” With such love, she’s sure, what’s in store is “not Death, but Life, Augmented, op'nd Eyes, new Hopes, new Joyes.” “On my experience, Adam,” she tells him, “freely taste, And fear of Death deliver to the Windes.” But death looms large, Eve knows, as she now sees Adam, choosing her over heaven, more lovingly than ever
… much won that he his Love Had so enobl'd, as of choice to incur Divine displeasure for her sake, or Death
Dreading death, Eve and Adam soon turn to sex, grander (and greedier) than ever. Is love lost to lust – pure amour spoiled by (carnal) knowledge, instigated by diabolic seduction? Milton, I believe, never saw joyful sex as bad, even when given a nice boost by a forbidden fruit.
But God had different plans. If revenge is best served cold, and in portions, God is a master chef of vindictive cuisine. An immediate death, his original pledge, might be too swift for the sinful lovers, who are thus banished from the garden, punished by pain for seeking, and gaining, freedom – till death truly do them part.
And still, love lingers. Upon realizing what they’ve done, Eve and Adam, still in heaven, fight like hell. But before departure, they dare smile in the face God’s verdict. Eve speaks for both, in the name of love:
In mee is no delay; with thee to goe Is to stay here; without thee here to stay, Is to goe hence unwilling; thou to mee Are all things under Heav'n, all places thou
Why, then, was paradise lost, what’s our verdict? Here’s mine: Love is the original sin, fed by fear of loneliness. Paradise lost for love.
And jealousy. It has been there all along, lurking, lifting its head whenever one fails to hold hope greater than oneself; whenever we’re vain enough to believe we’re everything someone else should want, or need; whenever possession trumps transcendence.
Jealousy has been there all along, lifting its head whenever one fails to hold hope greater than oneself; whenever we’re vain enough to believe we’re everything someone else should want, or need; whenever possession trumps transcendence.
Satan was jealous of the mighty God, and of his new-beloved Adam. Adam was jealous/zealous for his rib, i.e. Eve. And Eve was jealous of Adam’s other rib, i.e. Eve II. But the covetous cycle is yet incomplete, one more culprit to fit.
Who, after all, was most hurt by Adam’s choice – his death-defying love for Eve?
Who could have become so lonely in its aftermath to so rage and take revenge?
God told Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but had Adam paid more attention, he would have noticed that behind this hollow hallowed threat, God, in whose image he was created, lay before him His real drives, hidden in plain sight – and sound. For God himself asked Adam, upon the latter’s request to have a companion:
What thinkst thou then of mee, and this my State, Seem I to thee sufficiently possest Of happiness, or not? who am alone From all Eternitie, for none I know Second to mee or like, equal much less How have I then with whom to hold converse Save with the Creatures which I made, and those To me inferiour, infinite descents Beneath what other Creatures are to thee?
How could he not understand, God must have asked himself, how could Adam not see how much I need him to be with Me? Well, men, go figure… I bet Eve could have explained all that to God, had He bothered talking to the more emotionally intelligent half of the human couple. One can only imagine how hurt God felt by Adam’s apple. “Let it get stuck in his throat!” I can hear Him say, “So you love her more than you love me? Alright then, leave! Let’s see how well you two lovebirds do without me – you’ll plead for me to love you back.” And so they did, and their decedents too, to-date, making jealousy the oldest trick in God’s book, stained in human blood: Cain and Abel each wanting God’s love all to himself.
Perhaps instead of suggesting suicide, as Eve did upon realizing how angry God was, she should have proposed polyamory. But then I guess envying Eve II precluded that. And so it was, the deed done, plenty of pain for everyone. Paradise is lost to people, but the real original sin is God’s.
The Unbitten Fruit
So much for the original paradise, but since Milton’s visit to Italy influenced him so, let’s go back there: What about Elio and Oliver – why was their paradise lost? What is their original sin?
In Christian art, the forbidden fruit is an apple. This makes little sense; there’s nothing particularly moral or mortal about apples. I should know, having a lethal allergy to the real forbidden fruit – peach.
Thankfully, this insight wasn’t lost on Elio and Oliver. You know what I’m talking about: Elio, ever so curious and insatiable, daydreams, and makes love to Oliver, that is, to a peach, to full fruition.
When the real Oliver arrives, he sensually awakens Elio, lifts the peach, and playfully plans to take a bite. But Elio pleads: “Please don’t do that… why are you doing this to me? You’re hurting me.”
In the Garden of Eden, God demands that Adam not eat from the forbidden fruit; now Elio asks the same (his father, I imagine, knows well that El is Hebrew for ‘God,’ hḗlios is Ancient Greek for ‘sun’). Adam defies God’s command, Oliver complies with Elio’s plea. Few scenes capture the penetrating passion and torment of love as boldly and beautifully as that moment – when Elio tearfully collapses into the arms of Oliver, who then finally restores the peach to where it belongs. But that peachy peak of their bond also spells its ruin – and the loss of paradise.
James Ivory’s original script infuses the scene with insight. The peach “breaks apart. Holding the two halves of the reddened core in either hand, he begins to rub himself with them.” But this “two in one,” and its looming breakup, may be too much to endure. Ivory explains Elio’s reaction to Oliver: “ELIO reaches out to him, bursting into tears. The emotion and intensity of their intimacy finally overwhelming him.” True intimacy cripples what begot it in the first place – love.
The film, unlike the script, concludes the peach scene with Elio crying, “I don’t want you to go.” Oliver doesn’t reply, simply hugs Elio, and the subsequent scene starts with Oliver lamenting they’ve wasted so much time – which makes sense only if they’re bound to part ways. But why are they? Oliver could have easily stayed, Elio’s parents so lovingly (and cunningly) accepting their love. Elio could have easily left; he’s old enough, and certainly open to adventure. It’s also no 1950s Carol; the socio-political climate is not ideal, but congenial enough for gay love to blossom, if the two are brave enough. And they were brave – so much so – until, suddenly, they weren’t. Eve and Adam risked everything. Elio and Oliver risked nothing. Elio at least indicated something to his quasi-girlfriend. Oliver didn’t even tell Elio about his soon-to-be wife, and I can’t imagine he told her about Elio.
They were brave – so much so – until, suddenly, they weren’t. Eve and Adam risked everything. Elio and Oliver risked nothing.
Tellingly, I think, Elio doesn’t ask Oliver “Please stay,” but merely expresses a wish instantly translated in both their minds to wishful thinking. For all their desire, Elio’s “I don’t want you to go” was for neither an invitation to start something grander, but a recognition of the impending end.
A different desire, with a better ending, might have required braver human agents, and perhaps some angels from heavens. Such is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire / The Heavens Over Berlin (1987), where Damiel, one of the immortal angels looking over the city, falls in love with Marion, a lonely trapeze artist. Without calling each other by their names, they echo their intimacy by reciting the “Song of Childhood”: Warum bin ich Ich / und warum nicht Du? / Warum bin ich hier / und warum nicht dort? (Why am I me? and why not you? Why I'm here and why not there?). As Marion recites the poem, amidst her dream, she feels Damiel’s presence, and says the words Elio never did: “I want you to stay with me.”
The Only Thing That’s Real
“The heart changes,” Proust wrote, “and that is our greatest tragedy.” There is a greater tragedy: even when the heart doesn’t change, we often act as if it does; and by doing so, change it. Elio and Oliver haven’t lost their passion or compassion for each other; they lost their audacity, resigning themselves to some hidden hand of fate, as if the mighty Zeus himself descended from the heavens to split them apart (again). But Zeus didn’t, and neither did God. While Eve and Adam wanted to remain in the Garden, but were exiled by God for their love, Elio and Oliver exit Eden of their own volition. No need for divine intervention or force majeure; they did it to themselves. But why? Why, after having so wonderfully created their own fate, would Elio and Oliver now so readily surrender to fatalism? Why would they allow a delusional promise for some peace of mind trump pure peach moments of their own making? Why not try a little harder?
The answer, I think, lies in the precarious balance between hope and pain, and as is often the case, fear tips the scale. Eve and Adam feared loneliness. They were more afraid of forsaking one another, losing their love, than of finding out they didn’t truly love each other. They knew: untested love, isn’t. Eve and Adam were trustful, perhaps naively so, relying on each other to meet that “glorious trial of exceeding Love.” They were hopeful, perhaps naively so, willing to take the boldest moves – indeed, going to hell – to remain together, believing that somehow, they will. And somehow, they did. They could have taken a cue straight from Pablo Neruda: “He or she… who does not risk certainty for uncertainty, to thus follow a dream / those who do not forego sound advice at least once in their lives / die slowly.”
Eve and Adam were more afraid of forsaking one another, losing their love, than of finding out they didn’t truly love each other.
Elio and Oliver did not fear loneliness as much as they feared love itself. They were afraid of truly testing their love, to see if it’s real. Though lustful and kind, I don’t know how much they truly trusted each other. It takes (at least) two to tango trust – and hope. Elio, I believe, suspected Oliver is dancing alone, perhaps just for the fun of it, and he was afraid to find out. I could imagine Oliver, fleeing freedom at the railroad station, telling himself, “to avoid the pain, hop on the train.” I wonder if Elio heard the same. Recall how Milton’s Satan, giving himself a pep talk, spelled the cure: “farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear.” Hopeless, you have little to be anxious about. By opening a free future, hope thrills but terrifies: dreaming the impossible dream is knowing there’s much to lose, many grand failures ahead. It’s enough to instill terror in the bravest heart.
Hope is Elio’s asking Oliver to stay. But to hope is to fear – fear what? Elio may have feared Oliver’s likely “no,” spoiling the magic, tarnishing the memory of it, which both seem so desperate to savor while still living in the present. More troubling, I think, both may have been afraid of “yes,” of truly testing their love to see if it can withstand the trials that such a bold move entails. Would their love last or yield, implying it was never there to begin with? Beyond the splendid plains of paradise, the pains of true love, with so many difficult choices, awaited them, but they dared not venture into that terrain. Instead, they opted to preempt pain by giving up. They should have taken a cue from Leonard Cohen, who would have taught them that “Love is not a victory march,” so often felt by those who fall in love, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” It is transcendence reached by withstanding the trials of true “I-thou” partnership: seeing you for the free, full human being that you are, not turning you in my mind into a thing – into s/he/it.
Substituting “you” for “it,” Intimacy lies at the heart of such partnership. Etymologically “the inmost, made known,” intimacy sees our self-made walls for what they are: phantasm of protection. Intimacy dismantles them brick by brick to expose us, our vulnerability – to ourselves, and to others. In Dante’s Inferno, Francesca speaks of “Amor ch’a nullo amato amar perdona”: “Love, which spares no beloved from loving back.” How, indeed, can you not love, even just a bit, someone who truly loves you? Conversely, how can you love, even just a bit, someone who doesn’t love you? Ask Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. For now, for us, this only begs the conundrum: How does love end? Why is paradise lost? Perhaps, sometime, intimacy is the instigator. I occasionally wonder if love can really be unrequited, but I can hardly see how intimacy could be so. Intimacy too takes two. It’s unbearable if felt unreciprocated.
How can you not love, even just a bit, someone who truly loves you? Conversely, how can you love, even just a bit, someone who doesn’t love you?
If life’s peach moments present us with a midterm exam in Intimacy 101, Elio and Oliver wrote, together, the most passionate paper – and decided not to submit it. Both the bolder Elio and the playful Oliver ultimately recoiled from the pain of full intimacy – which may dive into the deepest abyss to soar to the greatest heights. They got close, so very close, to the edge, nearly leaping over the abyss, but then stepped back to safety zones. Seeing before them no future together, they gave up the possibility of creating one.
Herein Intimacy 101 becomes “Room 101.” As Orwell shows us in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Room 101 is “the worst thing in the world”: facing our most painful fear makes us betray love – and our humanity.