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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Books: Call Me By Your Name - Part 2: The Concept of Living Parallel Lives

In my prior article about the book, Call Me By Your Name, I focused on the phrase, "Is it better to speak or to die?," a question that spurred the main character, Elio, to reveal his romantic feelings to Oliver, the graduate student staying in Elio's family's vacation home in Northern Italy.  In my current article, I'm focusing on another concept that came up in the book (but not in the movie of the same name) about living parallel lives--living the life you have chosen as well as the fantasy of the life you might have wanted on some level but did not choose.

Living Parallel Lives

There are many ambiguities in the book as well as in the movie.  But the part about living parallel lives seemed clearer to me in terms of Oliver's and Elio's enduring romantic feelings for each other even many years later.

When I read what Oliver told Elio about his own experience with parallel lives, I thought about how common this is for many people, especially with regard to relationships.

Whenever we choose one person, we are letting go of other possible choices (see my article:  Explorations in Psychotherapy of the Road Not Taken in Life).

Inevitably, many people experience regrets and a sense of loss for their relationship choices--if not immediately, then perhaps later in life.  But most people make choices given who they are and what they know about themselves, information they have about the situation, and options available to them at the time that they are making the choice.

These can be difficult choices.  Letting go of alternatives can be very challenging.  This can lead to the concept of living parallel lives--living the life chosen as well as the fantasy of the one not chosen.

Living in the 21st century, when it comes to relationships, there has never been a time when it was easier to continue to fantasize about the person you didn't choose or who didn't choose you (see my article: Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away").

Unlike the 1980s, when Elio and Oliver had their romance, there's so much information now online that you can keep up with what is going on with your ex and continue to fantasize about what your life might have been like if you were still with that person.

Spoiler Alert:  If you haven't read the book, you might want to stop reading at this point.

As I mentioned in my prior article, unlike the movie, the book is written from Elio's perspective, so it's important to keep in mind that his perspective might not be accurate.  Like anyone else, his view could be distorted.

When they met many years later and Oliver talked to Elio about his own experience of living parallel lives--his actual life with his wife and family and his fantasy of what life might have been like if he remained with Elio, Elio seemed surprised that he was still on Oliver's mind all this time later.  Not only is Elio on Oliver's mind, but Oliver keeps track of Elio's career, what is going on in Elio's life, and what has gone on with Elio's parents.

The words "cor cordium" (translated as "heart of hearts") comes up twice in the book.

The first time is when Oliver was staying with Elio and his family as a graduate student and Oliver and Elio were in town to pick up the Italian translation of Oliver's manuscript. Oliver asked Elio if he knew who drowned in that area.  Elio, who was precocious for his age, responded that it was the poet, Shelley.

Then, Oliver asked Elio if he knew what Shelley's wife and friends did when they found Shelley's body.  Elio responded "cor cordium" referring to when Shelley's friend seized Shelley's heart before it was consumed in the fire as it was being cremated on the shore.  The same two words were engraved on Shelley's gravestone.

Oliver's response was to ask Elio, "Is there anything you don't know?"  At that point, Elio saw his chance to seize the moment to reveal to Oliver, rather cryptically, that he had romantic feelings for Oliver.

The second time that "cor cordium" came up was when they met many years later and Oliver revealed that he kept the framed postcard of a place called Monet's berm that he took from Elio's room when he stayed in Elio's home as a graduate student. This is significant because Monet's berm is the place where Oliver and Elio first kissed and Elio revealed his feelings for him.

The prior history of the framed postcard was that a prior graduate student, who stayed with Elio's family, found it at a flea market in Paris and sent it to Elio as a souvenir.  This prior student had written on the back of the postcard, "Think of me someday."  When Oliver left Elio's family home in Italy, he took the framed postcard with him to remind him of the day that Elio revealed his feelings for him on Monet's berm.

Oliver showed Elio that he kept the framed postcard in his office where he saw it everyday.  He said he added his own inscription to the back and hoped to send it back to Elio.

At first, when Elio asked Oliver what he wrote, Oliver told Elio that he wanted it to be a surprise when he sent it back to Elio.  But when Elio told him that he didn't like surprises, Oliver revealed that he wrote "cor cordium" on the back of the card.

The framed postcard of Monet's berm was part of Oliver's parallel life of fantasizing about their romance with Elio.

There is much that is ambiguous about the book and the movie.  Possibly, the author, Andre Aciman, meant the story to be ambiguous because of Oliver and Elio's feelings were conflicted at times.

It is unclear why Oliver chose the conventional life that he did with his on-again/off-again relationship with his then-girlfriend.  One possibility is revealed earlier in the book when Oliver was very conflicted about getting sexually involved with Elio.  He told Elio that they should not talk about such things when Elio lets him know how he feels about him, as if a man loving another man is a taboo subject.

Oliver's emotional conflict was revealed in several other ways:  After they kissed, he told Elio that, until that point, they were "good" (before they got sexually involved) and he wanted to be "good," the implication being that getting sexually involved would be "bad" or wrong.

In addition, since Oliver was about to become a professor, he had more to lose professionally if he were in a gay relationship (this was the 1980s).

He also told Elio that, unlike Elio's parents who were more liberal and accepting of Elio and Oliver's  love for each other, Oliver's father would be alarmed if he knew that Oliver got involved with a man.  Oliver said his father would take him to a correctional facility if he found out.

Then, of course, there's the age difference of 17 vs 24, which at that stage of life made a big difference, and the geographic distance between them with Elio being in Europe and Oliver in New York City at that point.

For all of his bravado and outward appearance of confidence, Oliver lacked confidence at that stage in his life, as Elio's father astutely observed.  So, that in addition to all the other obstacles of remaining involved with Elio, Oliver might not have felt confident enough to be in a gay relationship with all the problems there would have been in the 1980s.

Neither the book nor the movie reveal if Oliver had any prior involvement with men.  My sense is that, even though Oliver might have known he was bisexual, he probably never acted on his feelings for men before Elio.

Or, it was also possible that Oliver never had these feelings for men before (as opposed to Elio, who revealed in the book that he had attractions for men, but never acted on them).

This is part of the problem when the issue is viewed from a gender binary perspective where people are seen as being either gay, straight or bisexual.  When there is ambiguity as there is in Call Me By Your Name, the problem with the gender binary perspective adds to the confusion.

In any case, neither Elio nor Oliver have completely suppressed their feelings for each other, even though this is difficult given that they are not together and they each feel sad about that.

The end of the book was also ambiguous and seemed to hint at a possible sequel.

If there is a sequel, will Elio and Oliver get together years later or will they continue to live separate but parallel lives where they still love each other but are not directly involved in each other's lives?

It's anyone's guess.

I believe the book as well as the movie have great general appeal because, regardless of sexual orientation, the inner conflicts that Oliver and Elio experience about love and loss are universal themes.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping people, heterosexual and LGBTQ, to overcome problems in their lives and their relationships.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.