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ISSUE 120 VOL 5 PUBLISHED 10/27/2006

DuRocher lectures

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, October 27, 2006

Last Thursday night members of the college community gathered in Rolvaag Library to hear Professor of English Rich DuRocher give the first of this year’s two Carl A. Mellby Memorial Lectures. Professor DuRocher, whom his colleague Professor of English Carol Holly called "one of the leading Milton scholars in the country" in her introduction, spoke on the topic "Why Milton Matters."

Holly remarked that "Of course we want to hear about Milton, but we want to hear about Milton from Rich," and also revealed that DuRocher has been asked to give the prestigious plenary address at the biennial Milton conference in 2007.

After Holly finished speaking, DuRocher, on crutches from foot surgery, clambered up to the podium and noted that his first emotions at being asked to give the lecture were "humbling filled with fear," and recounted one of his most memorable early experiences at St. Olaf, debating in Latin and classical Greek with other professors while they were roofing James May’s garage, saying that professors "still hang out in precarious positions doing impossible jobs with inadequate compensation."

Moving on to the main body of his lecture, DuRocher emphasized that the topic of his lecture is "a live, animating question for me," and outlined the three aspects of John Milton’s writings which he would discuss: discriminating freedom, the rhetoric of heroism, and searching for truth and beauty.

While DuRocher said that contemporary literary criticism would probably discount all three issues as "quaint," he himself believes that the "hunger for them remains keen," and that the figure of Samson from Milton’s poem Samson Agonistes is a compelling portrait of a human being acquiring the "mental and moral awareness" to decide how to use his personal liberty. In contrast to some well-known Miltonists, DuRocher declared that this is not mere poetry, but "the complex calculus of conscience."

DuRocher also praised and dissected Milton’s rhetoric of heroism, and in particular his well-known anti-hero, Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan, DuRocher remarked to crowd applause, is the "prince of double-speak, and Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld are choirboys in comparison." But Milton’s depiction of Satan allows readers to see through the fallen angel even as they see him, so that by reading the poem people "enact their own process of moral discrimination”: The true hero in the poem is not Satan, but Eve, whose inversion of pagan epic martial heroism is so profound a Christian counter-example that DuRocher terms it "counter-heroism."

In Milton’s view, DuRocher explained, if you avoid the trial of virtue, you avoid virtue itself; while the labor of searching for beauty and for virtue is painful, it is worthwhile. Milton himself used the metaphor of Ceres’ search for her daughter Persephone after her kidnapping by Hades to describe the hardships of this quest, but as DuRocher noted, for Milton the search’s real end was coming to value his fit, though few, fellow-searchers. For that reason, DuRocher concluded, he himself clings to the searcher John Milton as a guide in his own quest.

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