- Vladimir Pecherin's Apologia pro vita mea (Mémoires d'outre-tombe):A Strategy of Defense
Vladimir Nabokov disputed the idea that literature imitates life and proposed the reverse: life imitates literature. Yet the connection between life and literature is an oscillating process, further complicated when a memoir, a would-be mimetic representation of a life, is an imitation of other literary texts, literature imitating literature. The case of Vladimir Pecherin is an example of the play of the manifold links between literature, life, and life-writing.
In 1836, Vladimir Sergeevich Pecherin (1807-1885), a young professor of Greek at Moscow University, a gifted poet and translator, loved by his students and colleagues, suddenly abandoned a promising career and fled Russia, never to return. He had spent two years studying philosophy in Berlin, as one of a small group of students from St. Petersburg University sent by the Russian government to prepare for their academic careers. Each student owed twelve years of service as a professor in exchange for the funding; Pecherin left the country after teaching just one semester. At that time, he was twenty nine; the remaining forty nine years of his life were spent abroad, first in France, then in England, and finally, in Ireland. During the first four years after his departure, Pecherin wandered through Western Europe, where he mingled with various revolutionary circles. Then, in 1840, he unexpectedly converted to Catholicism. Shortly afterwards he took a tonsure and entered the Redemptorist Order as a monk. His bond with [End Page 53] Russia, however, was not cut for good. In the 1860s and the 1870s he corresponded with friends and relatives in Russia. Autobiographical sketches included in his letters eventually became the core of the book Apologia pro vita mea (Mémoires d'outre-tombe) compiled and given this title by the editors many years after his death.1
Pecherin's epistles to Russia invert the genre of narratives of conversion2: they are a repentant story of the patterns of his devotion to illusory ideals such as Socialism, Hegelianism, and Romanticism, as [End Page 54] well as Catholicism and religion in general. Glaring contradictions between the ideas expressed in his Russian correspondence and the reality of his long life within the Catholic Church puzzle everyone who studies Pecherin and his time, In an attempt to find a "partial answer" to the mystery of Pecherin's dual personality, I turn to an analysis of his writings within the historical and psychological context of his relations with the Apologia's addressees.
Like many young idealists of his generation, born in the glorious years of Russia's victory over Napoleon and coming of age around the time of the Decembrist uprising of 1825, Pecherin spent his early adult years under the stale and oppressive regime of Nicholas I. Ideas and ideals that had nourished their youth poorly prepared them for the bureaucratic functioning of the Russian Empire. The skepticism and rationalism of Voltaire and Rousseau, eagerly embraced by their fathers, began to lose their grip on the imagination of the young Russian Romantics who discovered Schiller, George Sand, and, later, Hugo, Schiller, in particular, infused the consciousness and imagination of several generations of Russian intellectuals. Despite his exceptional biography, Pecherin was a representative of that idealistic generation, one whose conflicts fully expressed its Zeitgeist.
When Pecherin began to study Hegel he discovered a more extreme idealism than he had previously encountered. Hegel's system cast the entire world as a great process, a gradual development from inanimate matter to progressively higher levels of human consciousness that eventually attained the Absolute —a plenitude of existence that encompassed both God and the universe. Pecherin's first biographer, M, Gershenzon, observed that young people of Pecherin's generation profoundly believed that "such a synthesis could actually be found if one got to the source and drank from it" (2000: 401).3 Just a few years after Hegel's death, the spring of knowledge was still gushing in Germany, at least for Pecherin. At that time, Pecherin was not interested [End Page 55] in the Church or in religious mysticism; however, he was longing for the Absolute, for the ideal...