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 to warn me, “In our town,
José,
do you know that 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 condescendance!

“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, Mr. Peralta.” 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 my escape would not occur until  . . . 39 years
later, and
to Rome to be exact, when I came here as a professor and decided
to jump ship and 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 show-stopper. An anticlimactic non-sequetur 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 which according to ancient accounts points back to the very
foundation of the City in 753 B.C. . 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. These
are subjects literally too delicate to touch or handle during a walking-tour
class of the city.

Anyway, writing in
100 A.D., 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
play   
Julius Caesar, when Marc Antony delivers his famous funeral oration from
the podium
that one 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 "
pencil study from the author's sketchbook
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