“Call Me by your Name”, the Sea and the Axe

“When one has once had the good luck to love intensely, life is spent in trying to recapture that ardor and that illumination. Forsaking beauty and the sensual happiness attached to it, exclusively serving misfortune, calls for a nobility I lack. But, after all, nothing is true that forces one to exclude. Isolated beauty ends up simpering; solitary justice ends up oppressing. Whoever aims to serve one exclusive of the other serves no one, not even himself, and eventually serves injustice twice. A day comes when, thanks to rigidity, nothing causes wonder any more, everything is known, and life is spent in beginning over again. These are the days of exile, of desiccated life, of dead souls. To come alive again, one needs a special grace, self-forgetfulness, or a homeland. Certain mornings, on turning a corner, a delightful dew falls on the heart and then evaporates. But its coolness remains, and this is what the heart requires always.”
Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa, 1952

“We would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Franz Kafka, 1904

The morning after watching the film “Call Me by your Name”, not having yet emerged from its world and not especially wanting to, I came across the passage by Camus. I had a strange reaction to the film, one I could not immediately categorize as good or bad, but I knew this reaction would not leave my body without my acknowledgment or confrontation with it. I must admit that the main reason I had been anticipating watching this film was because of its promise of extreme and utter beauty, both in its cast and its location. As I grow older, I find that sometimes I miss beauty, only beauty and nothing else. The other day, I found myself really missing being surrounded by the colors of Rome, as if Rome were a person. So, I expected the film to satisfy this one pleasure I asked of it, at the very least. I had to understand the title. This was the second reason. The title did not go unnoticed when I first heard of it. “How catchy!”, I thought, “too good to have any real meaning behind it.” The expectations and assumptions were many. Yet, I knew very little about this film. As I found myself almost immediately entirely immersed in the film, I naturally understood the title, before it was even uttered. So, the title I had collected a few witticisms about would have to be excluded from my repertoire of jokes. But, the understanding of this title came with some other unexpected, conflicted feelings, less fun perhaps than the puns I had collected. The love between the men was so natural that the exchange of identities required by the title would be no exchange at all. Their (proper) names, Elio and Oliver, already similar, simply did not belong to one or the other any longer, but to both, to each other. The names became shared property, as everything else did. An intertwining of names, bodies, minds that cannot be undone. Now, think, for a moment, to who would you give your name? Whose name would you take? As I watched, I asked myself the fatal question: When was the last time, if ever, that I felt like this? If ever. I could not remember. Fragments, echoes of similar feelings, moments that I had purposefully forgotten, moments of weakness perhaps or embarrassment, moments that had taken a much too heavy and long toll on my soul. Remembering is one step. Finding the secret storage of feelings that accompany these moments, another. Nothing in my thoughts prior to watching this film had taken me back to these feelings. This film, excessively beautiful and unapologetically solely about love and art, was deceptively difficult to process. In our objective to be well-adjusted, we forego all that we think or feel, our impulses, all that we are. We seem to care about things and about people, about social causes and careers, about creating families, about hiking and climbing, about pets and plants, and everything that requires the kind of strength, morality, and discipline that makes us proud. Yet, we all know we lack strength where it is most necessary. All we do certainly has its worth in the currency of the world, but it is, first and foremost, an escape from the utter vulnerability of learning to love, being in love, responding to love, unfreezing for love in the moment that it commands us to. We expertly evade what we know we must do, what we have to dig through layers of years and forgotten memories to find. As the film came to its unfortunate but necessary conclusion, the father says to his young son: “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything - what a waste!” I understood that until the end, even at that moment, I had been secretly hoping I had misinterpreted the entire thing, though its premise is as glaringly evident as it is in our lives. I felt the depth of Kafka’s sea in the pit of my stomach and the axe that indelicately hit it.