People of the Book: Not Asking or Telling
Times are hard for those who want to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. “Major setback for ‘don’t ask’ repeal,” blared a headline last week on the front page of The Washington Post. “The Senate Stands for Injustice,” announced an editorial in The New York Times. After a military policy bill stalled in the Senate last week, it seems the odds of repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell before the year is over are slim. The Senate is revisiting the issue this weekend in a vote that may decide, in one direction or another, the future of the 17-year-old policy.
The core of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell–the idea that there are pieces of ourselves we must hide, that a part of one’s identity might be inherently threatening and problematic–is not limited to the military. Andre Aciman’s 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name tells the story of Elio, a 17-year-old Jewish boy living in an unnamed Italian resort town. Elio’s father, something of a local intellectual, takes in a young scholar every summer as a protege, advising the budding mind on academic matters.
One summer, the student turns out to be Oliver, a 24-year-old studying Heraclitus. Elio is struck by him immediately, as soon as he arrives at their house–“It might have started right there and then: the shirt, the rolled-up sleeves, the rounded balls of his heels slipping in and out of his frayed espadrilles, eager to test the hot gravel path that led to our house.” Elio doesn’t quite know what to call his fascination with Oliver, having not yet nailed down the terms of his sexuality; at 17, he is reticent to embrace his attraction to other men, still holding out for a life of perceived normalcy.
So Elio at first pins Oliver’s appeal to the latter’s utter lack of self-consciousness about his Jewishness, noting the Star of David and mezuzah Oliver wears on a gold chain. Elio says of his family, “We wore our Judaism as people do almost everywhere in the world: under the shirt, not hidden, but tucked away…To see someone proclaim his Judaism on his neck as Oliver did…shocked us as much as it taught us we could do the same and get away with it.” Being Jewish seems both peripheral and central to Oliver’s life–he announces it without saying a word, as if the idea of being ashamed of it has never even occurred to him.
Perhaps it is Oliver’s candor about being Jewish that inspires Elio to explore other dormant aspects of himself. He knows he is different from other boys his age, that his interest in Oliver goes beyond their shared religion. Elio has been living under his own policy of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, one in which he dates the girls of his village but secretly yearns for his family’s summer guest. Soon, though, the facade proves too cumbersome and comes crashing down.
No one in Call Me By Your Name ever asks, or even tells. Things happen because they cannot be avoided, because the truths about ourselves that we hide are often the ones that we cannot ignore. No one knows about Elio and Oliver, but everyone knows about Elio and Oliver. Late in the book, Elio’s father says to him, “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.” He’s said everything he needs to say about his son’s sexuality, but he’s also said nothing at all. Like Oliver’s Judaism, it is a non-issue, a fact that changes nothing, barely even meriting discussion.
Of course, for Elio it’s a fact that changes everything. Call Me By Your Name is largely an interior novel, taking place inside Elio’s head and dealing with the psychological torment of a will-they-or-won’t-they relationship. By the time they do, the fact that they are two men seems largely beside the point. They could be any two people, anywhere in the world. Andre Aciman’s novel is a testament to the irrationality of love–and of attempting to quash it by refusing to acknowledge it.