“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – One of Tolstoy’s best-known quotes, for the reason of our universal nodding to it. Surely we know Anna Karenina which birthed it, (or probably vice-versa), we know War and Peace, we may likewise know his novels and stories – but there are also Tolstoy’s diaries. Why these are striking is because we here see frankly two people – one, who surprises with his ability to create from nothingness, the other trying to come to senses with how to put into practice the convictions drawn from that creating process. One great writer had said “A writer’s works have the power to enlighten their author greater than any reader.” If this is true – and I find it is, because anything that is written comes from an overflowing fullness of mental ideas necessary to dilute by way of ink (or keyboard)- then we are right to hold as high a convictions standard for the author as his writings raise. We are too prone to label him a hypocrite otherwise, even though this isn’t the most intelligent road to take.
Count Leo Tolstoy outpoured his own marriage and family views into many of his novels – in the greatest way in Anna Karenina, where Levin and Kitty are very closely modeled after himself and his wife, Countess Sophia Tolstoy. In his diaries, Tolstoy recounts that all the usual symptoms of love which he used to make fun of, presently, after falling in love with Sophia, hold him completely a slave. They got married only a month after their real acquaintance, (though Tolstoy, being much older than her, had known Sophia since childhood as a family friend.) However, despite this happiness of love- of love completely reciprocated and untainted with any hardships as of yet, there was from the very beginning a mistrust of something in the way he approached his love. Instead of taking the time, which alone shows whether doubts are right or wrong, he rather insisted on holding the wedding the next week after the proposal. Moreover, being in doubt himself, he did everything to plant worse doubts in her, giving his bride his bachelorhood diaries to read the day before their wedding, including the details of his latest love affair with a peasant who bore him a child and to whom according to those, he felt “No longer the instincts of a deer, but that of a man to his wife.” This story stayed with Sophia for a long time and she recounted that what she had read left its mark on her whole married life although she never doubted that following their marriage Tolstoy had remained completely faithful to her. However, no one wants faithfulness resembling morbid sacrifice. And sometimes, it feels that Tolstoy wanted, or after a time, started to make something of a sacrifice out of his family life.
Knowing Tolstoy’s serious philosophical and social interests at that time some may think that a young girl, still a teenager, could not have shared these, which may in turn have been responsible for plenty of the misunderstandings and unbalance that found its way into the happy beginnings of their family life. However, Tolstoy was the one who chose precisely the already family- oriented (despite her youth), charming, but far from theoretical -philosophy – minded Sophia Berts, and not Elizabeth, the older serious sister whom everyone considered the probable object-to-be of his attentions. Had Sophia been less family -centered and more intellect-centered, their marriage, however full of trials, would probably not have lasted long.
Sophia’s own father and mother were an example she later often came back to in thought. Having an age difference of 18 years which didn’t hinder their family life, and being parents to 13 children, of which 8 survived (Sophia and Lev Tolstoy had also 13 children, of which 9 survived) they preserved a family the example of which,Sophia later noted, made her believe that despite her mother’s proud claims to have kept the family in such order so long, she finally realized that it matters not how hard a woman tries to keep the family, how good a wife and mother – all her rightful efforts will be useless if a man does not hold the same capacity of love and tenderness within the family. Precisely tenderness was what her husband lacked. Not only towards her, but towards their children. She recounts how strangely he looked down on her very first pregnancy, “As if I were to blame for being in this condition,” how happy he was to spend social company with her younger, unmarried and carefree sister, and then how little fatherly feelings he showed towards their firstborn. Tolstoy himself describes this in his diaries as well as in the character of Levin in Anna Karenina. As to her, Sophia writes of how often she wished for tenderness and affection in her married life but received only wild passion in return, followed by bouts of coolness and indifference.
Wild passion was precisely what Tolstoy cursed in later years, blaming this physical lust for all men’s evils. He explored these thoughts most strikingly in The Kreutzer Sonata. However, he offered no antidote. He simply stated that all physical acts of love were to blame, and advised abstaining from marriage altogether or living in it as brother and sister. (Sophia wrote her own reply to the Kreutzer Sonata – a story entitled “Whose Fault” and presently published together with the former as The Kreutzer Sonata Variations)
Why not address lust directly? Perhaps because that would be admitting that his own wild passions were also a form of lust, because any wildness is? And if his were, then what advice could Count Tolstoy give to others who were less of a genius, less intelligent, and less aristocratic? As usual in these cases, he took the human side of polar opposites. It’s easier to fast than eat mindfully. It’s easier to never touch women, especially after a certain age (and he wrote it exactly then), than be on the watchful lookout for where your own love ends and lust begins.
Perhaps Sophia’s womanly wisdom was on to something much more philosophical than any philosophical thesis. Love cannot exist without tenderness. But lust easily goes without both.
(This personal P.S would not be complete without the two links that will give you more personal and fullflling impressions than my few words.