In Call Me by Your Name, André Aciman implies that romantic attraction often involves a recognition of oneself in someone else. As seventeen-year-old Elio experiences his first serious relationship, he finds himself drawn to the ways he and Oliver are the same. After all, they’re both Jewish, both interested in the life of the mind, and both attracted by similar physical features. These similarities are especially significant for Elio, since he’s in the midst of establishing himself as an adult and figuring out who, exactly, he wants to be. As such, part of his attraction to Oliver arises from his desire to understand himself. In turn, Aciman demonstrates that romantic attraction can be an important part of a person’s identity formation, suggesting that people must understand their desires if they are to understand themselves.
Elio’s attraction to Oliver is complicated by the fact that he hasn’t yet come to terms with his own sexual identity. Before meeting Oliver, he’s never had a relationship with a man. This is partially because he has held himself back, forbidding himself from listening to his desires because he’s unwilling to conceive of himself as bisexual or gay. Three years before setting eyes on Oliver, for instance, he encountered a young man in the streets of Rome. “Did I want to get together in a nearby movie house, perhaps? I shook my head,” Elio writes. “Did I want to follow him to the store—boss was most likely gone by this time in the evening. Shook my head again. Are you shy? I nodded. All this without letting go of my hand, squeezing my hand, squeezing my shoulder, rubbing the nape of my neck with a patronizing and forgiving smile, as if he’d already given up but wasn’t willing to call it quits just yet.” Elio won’t let himself respond to this young man’s romantic advances even though it’s evident he would like to do so. There are a number of physical indications that he’s attracted to this man—as evidenced by his willingness to be touched so intimately by a stranger—but Elio resists his urges because they don’t align with the person he thinks he is: a heterosexual man.
Unlike his experience with the young Roman, Elio allows himself to honestly examine his attraction to Oliver, though at first he’s slow to admit that his feelings are romantic. In the early days of Oliver’s visit, Elio sits outside with him and wonders about the energy flowing between them. “What did I want?” he wonders. “And why couldn’t I know what I wanted, even when I was perfectly ready to be brutal in my admissions?” This question gets at the heart of his dilemma. On the one hand, he doesn’t know what he “wants,” and this frustrates him. On the other hand, he knows that he’s “ready to be brutal in [his] admissions,” which suggests that he does know what he wants and would “admit” those desires under the right circumstances. In other words, he hides his desires and attractions from himself even though he knows they exist. This, it seems, is part of what fuels his attraction to Oliver, whom he thinks might help him understand himself. “Perhaps the very least I wanted was for him to tell me that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was no less human than any other young man my age,” he muses. This wish to feel as if there’s nothing wrong with himself indicates that Elio fears his desires, thinking they might make him less human than other young men. What’s more, the fact that he wants Oliver to “tell” him that he’s not so different suggests that he recognizes something of himself in Oliver. Afraid to accept his identity as a bisexual man, he values the idea that Oliver is like him.
In addition to sexual preference, Elio also considers his Jewish heritage when contemplating his identity. In his family, being Jewish has never been something to broadcast (his mother even upholds that they are “Jews of discretion”). As such, Elio is astounded to see how proudly Oliver wears a Star of David around his neck. Elio says that looking at Oliver’s necklace is like “staring at something” that exists in both Oliver and himself, and readers see that his attraction has a lot to do with the ways in which he and Oliver are similar. Simply put, he feels bound to Oliver because he recognizes part of himself in him. Even more importantly, Oliver doesn’t hide this part of himself. Whereas Elio keeps his religion and sexual preferences secret, Oliver puts them on display. “He was okay with himself, the way he was okay with his body, with his looks […],” Elio notes. In this moment, Elio sees a projection of himself as a confident person, someone who doesn’t shy away from a man’s romantic advances or tuck his Star of David beneath his shirt.
When Elio and Oliver finally have sex, they decide to call each other by their own names, so that Elio becomes Oliver and Oliver becomes Elio. This linguistic game represents the extent to which they’re connected by a sense of self-recognition: each one sees himself in the other. In fact, this transference is so strong that Elio comes to see Oliver not only as a kindred soul, but as someone who literally represents him (Elio). Years later, when he thinks about his time with Oliver, he writes: “[H]e was more me than I had ever been myself, because when he became me and I became him in bed so many years ago, he was and would forever remain […] my brother, my friend, my father, my son, my husband, my lover, myself.” Tied together by their mutual attraction—and by love—Oliver and Elio are inextricably bound, so much so that their identities merge. In this way, Aciman shows readers how much romantic attraction can influence identity, suggesting that the recognition of oneself in another not only enhances a relationship, but also gives a person a more complex and comprehensive understanding of their own self.
Identity and Attraction ThemeTracker
Identity and Attraction Quotes in Call Me By Your Name
A few hours later, when I remembered that he had just finished writing a book on Heraclitus and that “reading” was probably not an insignificant part of his life, I realized that I needed to perform some clever backpedaling and let him know that my real interests lay right alongside his. What unsettled me, though, was not the fancy footwork needed to redeem myself. It was the unwelcome misgivings with which it finally dawned on me, both then and during our casual conversation by the train tracks, that I had all along, without seeming to, without even admitting it, already been trying—and failing—to win him over.
Today, the pain, the stoking, the thrill of someone new, the promise of so much bliss hovering a fingertip away, the fumbling around people I might misread and don’t want to lose and must second-guess at every turn, the desperate cunning I bring to everyone I want and crave to be wanted by, the screens I put up as though between me and the world there were not just one but layers of rice-paper sliding doors, the urge to scramble and unscramble what was never really coded in the first place—all these started the summer Oliver came into our house. They are embossed on every song that was a hit that summer, in every novel I read during and after his stay, on anything from the smell of rosemary on hot days to the frantic rattle of the cicadas in the afternoon—smells and sounds I’d grown up with and known every year of my life until then but that had suddenly turned on me and acquired an inflection forever colored by the events of that summer.
I knew exactly what phrase in the piece must have stirred him the first time, and each time I played it, I was sending it to him as a little gift, because it was really dedicated to him, as a token of something very beautiful in me that would take no genius to figure out and that urged me to throw in an extended cadenza. Just for him.
We were—and he must have recognized the signs long before I did—flirting.
Perhaps, in this, as with everything else, because I didn’t know how to speak in code, I didn’t know how to speak at all. I felt like a deaf and dumb person who can’t even use sign language. I stammered all manner of things so as not to speak my mind. That was the extent of my code. So long as I had breath to put words in my mouth, I could more or less carry it off. Otherwise, the silence between us would probably give me away—which was why anything, even the most spluttered nonsense, was preferable to silence. Silence would expose me. But what was certain to expose me even more was my struggle to overcome it in front of others.
I saw his star almost immediately during his first day with us. And from that moment on I knew that what mystified me and made me want to seek out his friendship, without ever hoping to find ways to dislike him, was larger than anything either of us could ever want from the other, larger and therefore better than his soul, my body, or earth itself. Staring at his neck with its star and telltale amulet was like staring at something timeless, ancestral, immortal in me, in him, in both of us, begging to be rekindled and brought back from its millenary sleep.
What baffled me was that he didn’t seem to care or notice that I wore one too. Just as he probably didn’t care or notice each time my eyes wandered along his bathing suit and tried to make out the contour of what made us brothers in the desert.
What never crossed my mind was that someone else who lived under our roof, who played cards with my mother, ate breakfast and supper at our table, recited the Hebrew blessing on Fridays for the sheer fun of it, slept in one of our beds, used our towels, shared our friends, watched TV with us on rainy days when we sat in the living room with a blanket around us because it got cold and we felt so snug being all together as we listened to the rain patter against the windows—that someone else in my immediate world might like what I liked, want what I wanted, be who I was. It would never have entered my mind because I was still under the illusion that, barring what I’d read in books, inferred from rumors, and overheard in bawdy talk all over, no one my age had ever wanted to be both man and woman—with men and women.
At my age, [Chiara’s] body was more than ready for him. More than mine? I wondered. She was after him, that much was clear, while all I really wanted was one night with him, just one night—one hour, even—if only to determine whether I wanted him for another night after that. What I didn’t realize was that wanting to test desire is nothing more than a ruse to get what we want without admitting that we want it.
The fear never went away. I woke up to it, watched it turn to joy when I heard him shower in the morning and knew he’d be downstairs with us for breakfast, only to watch it curdle when, rather than have coffee, he would dash through the house and right away set to work in the garden. By noon, the agony of waiting to hear him say anything to me was more than I could bear. I knew that the sofa awaited me in an hour or so. It made me hate myself for feeling so hapless, so thoroughly invisible, so smitten, so callow.
He stared me right in the face, as though he liked my face and wished to study it and to linger on it, then he touched my nether lip with his finger and let it travel left and right and right and left again and again as I lay there, watching him smile in a way that made me fear anything might happen now and there’d be no turning back, that this was his way of asking, and here was my chance to say no or to say something and play for time, so that I might still debate the matter with myself, now that it had reached this point—except that I didn’t have any time left, because he brought his lips to my mouth, a warm, conciliatory, I’ll-meet-you-halfway-but-no-further kiss till he realized how famished mine was.
And yet, he had shown me that what I wanted could be given and taken so naturally that one wonders why it needed such hand-wringing torment and shame, seeing it was no more complicated a gesture than, say, buying a pack of cigarettes, or passing a reefer, or stopping by one of the girls behind the piazzetta late at night and, having settled on a price, going upstairs for a few minutes.
How I admired people who talked about their vices as though they were distant relatives they’d learned to put up with because they couldn’t quite disown them. That and other things. I don’t care to remember—like I know myself—hinted at a realm of human experience only others had access to, not I. How I wished I could say such a thing one day—that I didn’t care to remember what I’d done at night in full morning glory. I wondered what were the other things that necessitated taking a shower. Did you take a shower to perk yourself up because your system wouldn’t hold up otherwise? Or did you shower to forget, to wash away all traces of last night’s smut and degradation?
“Do I like you, Oliver? I worship you.” There, I’d said it. I wanted the word to startle him and to come like a slap in the face so that it might be instantly followed with the most languorous caresses. What’s liking when we’re talking about worshipping? But I also wanted my verb to carry the persuasive knockout punch with which, not the person who has a crush on us, but their closest friend, takes us aside and says, Look, I think you ought to know, so-and-so worships you. “To worship” seemed to say more than anyone might dare say under the circumstances; but it was the safest, and ultimately murkiest, thing I could come up with. I gave myself credit for getting the truth off my chest, all the while finding a loophole for immediate retreat in case I’d ventured too far.
I loved her simplicity, her candor. It was in every word she’d spoken to me that night— untrammeled, frank, human—and in the way her hips responded to mine now, without inhibition, without exaggeration, as though the connection between lips and hips in her body was fluid and instantaneous. A kiss on the mouth was not a prelude to a more comprehensive contact, it was already contact in its totality. There was nothing between our bodies but our clothes, which was why I was not caught by surprise when she slipped a hand between us and down into my trousers, and said, “Sei duro, duro, you’re so hard.” And it was her frankness, unfettered and unstrained, that made me harder yet now.
I couldn’t understand how boldness and sorrow, how you’re so hard and do you really care for me? could be so thoroughly bound together. Nor could I begin to fathom how someone so seemingly vulnerable, hesitant, and eager to confide so many uncertainties about herself could, with one and the same gesture, reach into my pants with unabashed recklessness and hold on to my cock and squeeze it.
And yet another part of me knew that if he showed up tonight and I disliked the start of whatever was in store for me, I’d still go through with it, go with it all the way, because better to find out once and for all than to spend the rest of the summer, or my life perhaps, arguing with my body.
I’d make a decision in cold blood. And if he asked, I’d tell him. I’m not sure I want to go ahead with this, but I need to know, and better with you than anyone else. I want to know your body, I want to know how you feel, I want to know you, and through you, me.
No, I didn’t hate it at all. But what I felt was worse than hate. I didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to think about it. Just put it away. It had never happened. I had tried it and it didn’t work for me, now I wanted my money back, roll back the film, take me back to that moment when I’m almost stepping out onto the balcony barefoot, I’ll go no farther, I’ll sit and stew and never know—better to argue with my body than feel what I was feeling now.
It never occurred to me, as I was going through the heady motions of feeling over and done with him and even a tad disappointed that I had so easily recovered after a spell of so many weeks, that this desire to sit and discuss Haydn in so unusually relaxed a manner as we were doing right now was my most vulnerable spot, that if desire had to resurface, it could just as easily sneak in through this very gate, which I’d always assumed the safest, as through the sight of his near-naked body by the swimming pool.
I saw him pedal down the cypress lane, still wearing my trunks. No one had ever worn my clothes. Perhaps the physical and the metaphorical meanings are clumsy ways of understanding what happens when two beings need, not just to be close together, but to become so totally ductile that each becomes the other. To be who I am because of you. To be who he was because of me. To be in his mouth while he was in mine and no longer know whose it was, his cock or mine, that was in my mouth. He was my secret conduit to myself—like a catalyst that allows us to become who we are […].
I don’t know what happened to me at that moment as I kept staring at him, but suddenly I had a fierce urge to cry. And rather than fight it, as with orgasm, I simply let myself go, if only to show him something equally private about me as well. I reached for him and muffled my sobs against his shoulder. I was crying because no stranger had ever been so kind or gone so far for me, even Anchise, who had cut open my foot once and sucked and spat out and sucked and spat out the scorpion’s venom. I was crying because I’d never known so much gratitude and there was no other way to show it. And I was crying for the evil thoughts I’d nursed against him this morning. And for last night as well, because, for better or worse, I’d never be able to undo it, and now was as good a time as any to show him that he was right, that this wasn’t easy, that fun and games had a way of skidding off course and that if we had rushed into things it was too late to step back from them now— crying because something was happening, and I had no idea what it was.
Perhaps what I liked far more was the evening. Everything about it thrilled me. Every glance that crossed my own came like a compliment, or like an asking and a promise that simply lingered in midair between me and the world around me. I was electrified—by the chaffing, the irony, the glances, the smiles that seemed pleased I existed, by the buoyant air in the shop that graced everything […]
“You’re too smart not to know how rare, how special, what you two had was.”
“Oliver was Oliver,” I said, as if that summed things up.
“Parce que c’était lui, parce que c’était moi,” my father added, quoting Montaigne’s all-encompassing explanation for his friendship with Etienne de la Boétie.
I was thinking, instead, of Emily Brontë’s words: because “he’s more myself than I am.”
In my place, most parents would hope the whole thing goes away, or pray that their sons land on their feet soon enough. But I am not such a parent. In your place, if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it. Withdrawal can be a terrible thing when it keeps us awake at night, and watching others forget us sooner than we’d want to be forgotten is no better. 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!