“The Cossacks” by Leo Tolstoy

Young Tolstoy in Love

One must taste life once in all its natural beauty, must see and understand what I see every day before me–those eternally unapproachable snowy peaks, and a majestic woman in that primitive beauty in which the first woman must have come from her creator’s hands–and then it becomes clear who is living truly or falsely.

Three months have passed since I first saw the Cossack girl. I delighted in her beauty just as I delighted in the beauty of the mountains and the sky, nor could I help delighting in her, for she is as beautiful as they. I found that the sight of her beauty had become a necessity of my life and I began asking myself whether I did not love her. But I could find nothing within myself at all like love as I had imagined it to be. Mine was not the restlessness of loneliness and desire for marriage, nor was it platonic, still less a carnal love such as I have experienced. I needed only to see her, to hear her, to know that she was near–and if I was not happy, I was at peace.

I began to tell her of my love, in words I am now ashamed to remember. I am ashamed because I ought not to have dared to speak so to her because she stood far above such words and above the feeling they were meant to express. I said no more, but from that day my position has been intolerable. I did not wish to demean myself by continuing our former flippant relations, and at the same time I felt that I had not yet reached the level of straight and simple relations with her. I asked myself despairingly, “What am I to do?” In foolish dreams I imagined her now as my mistress and now as my wife, but rejected both ideas with disgust. To make her a wanton woman would be dreadful. It would be murder. To turn her into a fine lady, the wife of an officer, would be still worse. Now could I turn Cossack, and steal horses, get drunk on chikhir, sing rollicking songs, kill people, and when drunk climb in at her window for the night without a thought of who and what I am, it would be different: then we might understand one another and I might be happy. But not for me is the only happiness possible in the world; I cannot have this woman! What is most terrible and yet sweetest in my condition is that I feel that I understand her but that she will never understand me; not because she is inferior: on the contrary she ought not to understand me. She is happy, she is like nature: consistent, calm, and self-contained; and I, a weak distorted being, want her to understand my deformity and my torments! I have not slept at night, but have aimlessly passed under her windows not rendering account to myself of what was happening to me.

I love this woman; I feel real love for the first and only time in my life. I know what has befallen me. I do not fear to be degraded by this feeling, I am not ashamed of my love, I am proud of it. It is not my fault that I love. It has come about against my will. I tried to escape from my love by self-renunciation, and tried to devise a joy in [another man’s and her] love, but thereby only stirred up my own love and jealousy. This is not the ideal, the so-called exalted love which I have known before; not that sort of attachment in which you admire your own love and feel that the source of your emotion is within yourself and do everything yourself. I have felt that too. It is still less a desire for enjoyment: it is something different. Perhaps in her I love nature: the personification of all that is beautiful in nature; but yet I am not acting by my own will, but some elemental force loves through me; the whole of God’s world, all nature, presses this love into my soul and says, “Love her.” I love her not with my mind or my imagination, but with my whole being. Loving her I feel myself to be an integral part of all God’s joyous world.

I wrote before about the new convictions [of self-sacrifice] to which my solitary life had brought me, but no one knows with what labour they shaped themselves within me and with what joy I realized them and saw a new way of life opening out before me; nothing was dearer to me than those convictions… Well! Beauty came and scattered to the winds all that laborious inward toil. It is even difficult for me to believe that I could prize such a one-sided, cold, and abstract state of mind. Self-renunciation is all nonsense and absurdity! That is pride, a refuge from well-merited unhappiness, and salvation from the envy of others’ happiness: “Live for others, and do good!”–Why? when in my soul there is only love for myself and the desire to love her and to live her life with her? Not for others, I now desire happiness. I do not live my own life, there is something stronger than me which directs me. I suffer; but formerly I was dead and only now do I live.

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