“Childhood, Boyhood, Youth” by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy at 20
Tolstoy at 20 “Life and Work” by Pavel Biryukov

Tolstoy’s Self-Portrait

In this semiautobiographical trilogy, Tolstoy imagined a friendship between his boyhood-self, the narrator, and his young-adult self, Prince Dimitri Nechludoff, who is also the hero of hist last novel, Resurrection. Tolstoy was only in his 20s when he wrote the trilogy, but his self-portrait was stunningly accurate.

In him there were two personalities, both of which I thought beautiful. One, which I loved devotedly, was kind, mild, forgiving, gay, and conscious of being those various things. When he was in this frame of mind his whole exterior, the very tone of his voice, his every movement, appeared to say: “I am kind and good-natured, and rejoice in being so, and every one can see that I so rejoice.” The other of his two personalities–one which I had only just begun to apprehend, and before the majesty of which I bowed in spirit–was that of a man who was cold, stern to himself and to others, proud, religious to the point of fanaticism, and pedantically moral.

Tolstoy’s personal qualities that manifest themselves more fully in his later works are already evident in this trilogy, perspicacious, sensuous, passionate, socially awkward, philosophical, morally idealistic. As he himself wrote in Resurrection, “Every man carries in himself the germs of every human quality, and sometimes one manifests itself, sometimes another, and the man often becomes unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.”

On Love and Grief

Only those who can love strongly can experience an overwhelming grief. Yet their very need of loving sometimes serves to throw off their grief from them and to save them. The moral nature of man is more tenacious of life than the physical, and grief never kills.

It is not grief, but despair, that kills. There is no despair in love. Perfect love casts out despair. Love never fails.

Three Kinds of Love

Of love there are three kinds–love of beauty, the love which denies itself, and practical love.

Love of beauty consists in a love of the sense of beauty and of its expression. People who thus love conceive the object of their affection to be desirable only in so far as it arouses in them that pleasurable sensation of which the consciousness and the expression soothes the senses. They change the object of their love frequently, since their principal aim consists in ensuring that the voluptuous feeling of their adoration shall be constantly titillated. To preserve in themselves this sensuous condition, they talk unceasingly, and in the most elegant terms…It may seem a strange and ridiculous thing to say, but I am convinced that among us we have a large section of society–notably women–whose love for their friends, husbands, or children would expire to-morrow if they were debarred from dilating upon it in the tongue of France!

Love of the second kind–renunciatory love–consists in a yearning to undergo self-sacrifice for the object beloved, regardless whether such self-sacrifice will benefit or injure the object. People addicted to such love never look for reciprocity, since it is a finer thing to sacrifice yourself for one who does not comprehend you. They are always painfully eager to exaggerate the merits of their sacrifice; usually constant in their love, so as not to forego the kudos of the deprivations which they endure; always ready to die, to prove to him or to her the entirety of their devotion, but sparing of such small daily proofs of their love as call for no special effort of self-immolation; invariably proud of their love, exacting, jealous, distrustful, and–strange to tell–anxious that the object of their adoration should incur perils (so that they may save it from calamity, and console it thereafter) and even be vicious (so that they may purge it of its vice).

The third kind of love–practical love–consists of a yearning to satisfy every need, every desire, every caprice, nay, every vice, of the being beloved. People who love thus always love their life long, since, the more they love, the more they get to know the object beloved, and the easier they find the task of loving it–that is to say, of satisfying its desires. Their love seldom finds expression in words, but if it does so, it expresses itself neither with assurance nor beauty, but rather in a shamefaced, awkward manner, since people of this kind invariably have misgivings that they are loving unworthily. They look for their affection to be returned, and even deceive themselves into believing that it is returned, and are happy accordingly: yet in the reverse case they will still continue to desire happiness for their beloved one, and try by every means in their power–whether moral or material, great or small–to provide it.

[Posted to commemorate the 186th anniversary of Tolstoy’s birth]

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