Those rumors were scary. The rumors that circulated in my college
about the freshman oral exam at the end of the year.   
    
They said, in fact, that one particular senior female student – with
thick glasses and a perplexed, fugitive air about her – had never
passed her examination. She’d gone mad, run out of the room
cackling and screaming the moment she heard her assigned seminar
question! Her two philosophy teachers, or tutors, as they are
called at this school – St. John’s College, famous for its Great Books
curriculum in the classics—were stunned. Every time I saw this
rather sullen, ungainly senior girl, I could hear her professors asking
her.

“So, Miss So and So, why do you think that Oedipus put out his
eyes?”
 
Not too many students nowadays have to pass such oral
interrogations in their studies, or much less read the classics. Few
freshmen today look at any Greek text, tragedy or otherwise, or
would even understand what could have led those two seminar
leaders to torment a st.johnnie with such a question in the first place.
Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, after all, was written in the remote 5th
century B.C.

Remote and harmless indeed.

So harmless that one uncle of mine, God rest his Caribbean soul,
warned me before I entered St. John’s to study the classics: “You
know many of the Greek philosophers were homosexuals.” He went
on, “In our town, Hector Such and Such went crazy reading Plato
and Aristotle!”

Anyway, I know that when my own St. John’s philosophy seminar
examination day rolled around in late April that year 1971, my
worse student fears, grown huge by the stories of the Oedipus
student-gone-mad, were confirmed. When I walked into the old
classroom and took my seat, my two tutors let me have it -- I can still
see their look of smug philosophical condescendence!

“Well then, Mr. Peralta, what do you think is more true, History or
Poetry?”

“Hmmm,” I swallowed extra hard, cleared my freshman throat, and
remembered my uncle. Nothing, not-a-thing, came out! Unlike the
girl of the legends, I did not screech or run out of the room. I was
simply and terribly speechless.

Alas, I eventually babbled my way through the exam process and
somehow managed to pass all four years of the college’s curriculum.
But it has taken me years to simply understand my now-old exam
question and to realize how important it was. You can run, as they
say, but you can’t hide!

Anyway, I recall how my two St. John’s tutors tried to prod an
answer out of me: “Think back on our readings from antiquity.”
There was silence. I could hear the spring bees buzzing around
outside in the Maryland campus bushes. “What kind of book would
you read if you wanted to learn the truth about a certain war, a
history like those of Herodotus or Plutarch or the poetic accounts of
Homer or Shakespeare?”

Yes, I too wanted to run, but it wouldn’t be until  . . . 39 years later,
and to Rome to be exact, when I came here on work and decided to
stay in this city! Well, the historical fact is that I was brought here
peacefully by the University of Miami/School of Architecture to
teach a graduate level drawing class. But I have no doubts that most
human events, no matter how neatly their sequences seem to
follow a historical path, are often, too often, the flotsam of those
deeper waters and undercurrents that perhaps my good uncle was
warning me about.

The subject of poetry. Or at least of legends and rumors that can
make some of life’s “exams” unforgettable.

In my case, for example, I am certain one of the undercurrents comes
from a short-lived, and thank-God-mad love affair (years ago) with a
pair of philosophical and impossible Italian-American eyes deeper
than a sea – but I am getting ahead of myself. First let me go back to
the topic of history and university teaching appointments, and to
something I heard a present-day American college student
innocently ask in the Roman Forum here the other day. There we
were, a class of future architects and their two professors,
surrounded by  History (with a capital H, yes) in the form of
headless statuary, reconstructed temple fronts, or other
archaeological assemblages. We had just come from the Curia, where
my colleague had talked about democratic government and  how the
senators who gathered there would sometimes express their ideas
with anything but courtesy and insult each other if need be. But now
we were standing near the Temple of Julius Caesar and the same
professor told the 13 architecture students summarily Caesar’
s murder and the end of the Republic. “Imagine the audacity,” I
think he said more or less, “of building such a large temple to one
man. Well, they built this temple to one man – Rome’s first self-
proclaimed emperor, shortly after he was put to death.”

He was talking to the students, I thought with satisfaction, about
overgrown pride – or to use a great college exam word --  
hubris!

There was in the group, I recall, silence. And then a handsome,
blond-haired poster boy of an American student, fixing his own blue
eyes on a central area of the Forum site not far from the Curia,
blurted out: “But what is that tree doing there?”

What a showstopper. An anticlimactic non-sequitur if I ever heard
one, to my colleague’s learned comments about the Temple of the
Divo Giulio, as he is called in Italian, Julius the Divine.  But the
student was right, what in either historical or poetical fact was that
fig doing there in the Forum, next to a grape vine and an olive? I am
sure that few persons, foreign or otherwise, see that tree, much less
ask about it, when they walk past the area of the Forum. And this
took me back to my own college years: looking for the philosophical
life and wondering whether it is worth living.

By the way, some guide books of ROME -- not of life – mention the
tree of the blue-eyed student as a modern descendant of the fabled
Ficus ruminalis in ancient accounts about the foundation of the City.
But for some reason I refrained from giving the class a kneejerk
explanation about the she-wolf and the twins, Romulus and Remus,
who were found under the same kind of tree way long ago. I
thought instead, later, about the sharp-sighted spontaneity of the
question and of such curiosity itself as an archaeological site for a
conversation on the origins of Rome, maybe even about the birth of
poetry, life, and history. Subjects literally too delicate to touch or
handle during a walking-tour class of the city.

Anyway, writing in 75 B.C., about 2,000 years before my freshman
oral examination question had made me stop to think about the
truth of things or school subjects whose very names I took for
granted, the historian Plutarch wrote the following phrase to
describe Julius Caesar’s assassination:  “For it is reported, that he had
three and twenty wounds upon his body, and various of the
conspirators did hurt themselves, striking one body with so many
blows.”  It is sobering not only to visualize, thanks to the exacting
historical text, the twenty-three wounds inflicted on the one body,
but to feel that these same blows could in some way “strike” back
the murderers themselves. Though the phrase in Plutarch seems
simple and straightforward, it suggests a deeper level of meaning
usually more proper for the poet to explore! I even think the same
level or undercurrent of history – poetic history -- “struck” the wide-
eyed and bright American architecture student when he pointed the
group to the tree in the Forum. Perhaps the student suddenly felt in
the space the same type of emotional – or poetic -- displacement we
hear in Shakespeare’s  Julius Caesar, when Marc Antony delivers his
famous funeral oration from the podium we can still see today in the
archaeological site: “Bear with me,” he laments dumbfounded. “My
heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, and I must pause till it come
back to me.”

I would tell my student, great architecture can be designed from
such unexpected finds. That fig tree has deep roots.
Toroazul Painting and Fine Arts
    The Tree in the Roman Forum           
Plutei  of Trajan (2nd century A.D.)
11 "   x  17 "
Artists sketchbook
color pencil
2009
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutei_of_Trajan
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