Tolstoy was right: It is love that lets us see beauty

Toward the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy shows us a number of tender domestic scenes. In them, we encounter, after a lapse of time, those principal characters who have managed to survive both Napoleon and the turbulence of youth. Natasha, Nicholas, Countess Mary and Pierre have, to our great satisfaction, sorted themselves out at last into devoted couples with little children.

In one of these scenes, saintly, plain, heavily pregnant Countess Mary tells her handsome husband, Nicholas, that he can't love her because now, especially, she's so unattractive. He tells her that she's being absurd: "It isn't beauty that endears; it's love that lets us see beauty."

When I first read this, 30-some years ago, I thought that it was nonsense. Still, it stuck in my head, and over the last decade or so, I've come to see that, while not very believable as something that particular character would say, it is one of Tolstoy's profoundly true observations about the world: We find the people we love beautiful. You can't really separate love and beauty, in fact, when it comes to people. When it comes to nature and art, maybe. Sometimes. But not when you're looking at faces.

You can see this clearly in small children. I remember a friend of mine telling me about how her little girl, Jessie, couldn't stop talking about how beautiful her new preschool teacher was. "Sarah is so pretty," she'd tell her mother, dreamily. "Don't you think Sarah's beautiful? She looks just like a princess." My friend was astounded when she met a dowdy, plump young woman with stringy hair. It was the way she treated her students that made her beautiful to Jessie and, no doubt, to the other children.

Years ago, when I was in college, I had a striking experience of the connection between love and beauty. I found myself in a class with a woman who had been born with a severe disfiguring and disabling condition, and I remember, early on, looking at her during dull stretches—it was a creative-writing class, so there were plenty of those—with positive dislike. It's shameful, but there's no other way to put it: She was hard to look at, and I was young and stupid. Once I actually talked with her, she turned out to be delightful, and for years, a bunch of us ate together in the cafeteria, and later went to movies and lunch. Needless to say, her unattractiveness simply dissolved.

Tolstoy oversimplifies to make a point, because it does work the other way, too: Personal beauty certainly induces love. Back when I reviewed movies—and it's hard to imagine an occupation Tolstoy would have despised more absolutely—I realized that the beauty of movie stars is a sort of shortcut to familiarity, to attachment. They are people who are, objectively, so physically lovely—their faces so symmetrical, their hair and eyes so shining, their bodies so perfect—that we instantly, helplessly love them, although they are, in fact, total strangers. This confusion of cause and effect, impression and emotion, is the reason that we sit and watch with such pleasure as stars like Cary Grant or Ingrid Bergman (or, for that matter, Johnny Depp or Penelope Cruz) pretend to be one person and then another.

Imagine the bafflement, then, of the mortals who actually come into contact with these godlike humans. They are, as they must be, enchanted by their beauty, and they inevitably mistake it for a more substantial form of lovability, which may or not exist. (Think of the romantic history of Elvis Presley.)

You can also see the relation of love and the perception of beauty in the eyes of dogs. Our dogs love us, more purely and truly than any primate ever could. And who could doubt that in their eyes, we, the humans to whom they are attached, are radiantly beautiful? We stand before them—fat, tired and old as we are—like movie stars or Greek gods, shaking light off our curls.

Does the interdependence of beauty and attachment extend further, to something as impersonally beautiful as, say, a sunset? I think it does. There was a heartbreakingly spectacular red-and-gold sky last night as I drove home from work. If I'd seen the same sunset from any other place on Earth, it would not have been as beautiful, because the sun would not have dropped behind the Tucson Mountains. Which, quite simply, I love.

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