Caravaggio, Cervantes, Madeline Kahn, and my friend Sandy

Frankenstein or Frankensteen? Only Madeline Knows for sure

Frankenstein or Frankensteen? Only Madeline Knows for sure

The artist Caravaggio (born September 29, 1571) was fascinated by St. John the Baptist. He painted the beheaded New Testament “forerunner” of Christ many times, including once as a nude young man. I remember the name Caravaggio from my “History of Civilizations” class at the University of Redlands. My organ teacher for some reason taught the portion of the class on painting. Must have been because he was President of the American Society of Aestheticians at the time and had a Picasso in his dining room.

All I remember about Caravaggio is he was a precursor to Baroque painting (why else would a 19-year-old organ student who wanted nothing more than to play Bach brilliantly remember an artist?). Baroque. Paintings of the beheading of the saint. I’m pretty sure they didn’t show us the painting “St. John the Baptist, Youth with Ram.” I would have remembered that.

I read Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (born  September 29, 1547) in Spanish class in high school. Well, some of it. Miss Nichols thought it was more important to read sections of the original than to read the entire work in some sort of dumbed-down version for school kids. So we struggled. I remember a great deal more of Man of La Mancha (lyrics by Joe Darion and music by Mitch Leigh, 1965) and the “Impossible Dream” than I do of the original (who doesn’t). I’m probably one of three people in the country whose favorite song from the show is not “The Impossible Dream,” but “I like him.” You can figure that out. 1965. Junior year in college. Whom did I like?

(A totally off-topic sidebar: One of the students in that Spanish class, the assistant principal’s daughter, read Atlas Shrugged the year we read Don Quixote and became an “objectivist.” She was one of the most thoroughly unpleasant people I ever counted as a friend. I wonder what Robyn thought when Rand began accepting Social Security and Medicare. Omigod, collectivism at its worst! Can we spell “hypocrite?” And what about all those pseudo-conservatives and pseudo-libertarians playing at “democracy” in Washington who spout her idiotic and hack ideas—which, when lung cancer from smoking caught up with her, she obviously did not believe. Oops! Sorry for the irrelevancy.)

Madeline Kahn (born September 29, 1942) became my favorite comedic actress when I saw her in Young Frankenstein at a midnight

Not the Caravaggio they showed us in college

Not the Caravaggio they showed us in college

preview showing in Iowa City, IA, in 1974. Why wouldn’t they preview it there—before a wild crowd of University of Iowa students (I was in graduate school)? I read Frankenstein after I saw the movie, and then saw the movie again when it came out for real (and I’ve seen the musical—unfortunately without Madeline Kahn). For three semesters I used the novel and the movie in my class “Writing about the grotesque.” Not because I think they are grotesque, but because they made the students think. Who’s grotesque, the monster or Frankenstein? Or Frankensteeen?

In 1995 (or 1996—who can remember such things?) I attended a retreat of the Via de Cristo movement in the Lutheran church. I went mainly to get the people of the parish where I was organist off my back. The lay “rector” of the retreat became a cherished friend. Sandy (born September 29) and I eventually participated together in the Lutheran group working for equality for LGBT persons (including ordination to the clergy) in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA now ordains openly LGBT persons.

The retreat was an important milestone in my life for two reasons. It was the first time I ever “came out” formally to a church group (I was “out” to friends, but had never said so publically in a church gathering) and explained to them some of the intellectual and emotional difficulties I had always had with the church in general. But, more important than that, quite by accident I had a private conversation with a pastor in which I tried for the first time in my life to explain my (atheist?) understanding of the futility (and terror?) of human existence. He heard me without judgment. And at a later point he was coincidentally instrumental in my getting medical assistance for a bout of severe depression. I cannot overstate my gratitude to Sandy and Richard.

The connections among all of these observations and personal recollections may not be obvious. But all of this is what I was thinking about when I remembered Sandy’s birthday this morning. I looked on one of the “Famous Birthdays in History” websites—which I often do on the birthday of a friend, hoping to discover the birthday of a famous person with which I can make a connection for a greeting for my friend. The connection(s) today are probably obvious only to me.

Picasso and my kerfuffle

Picasso and my kerfuffle

But they come down to this. Ernst Bloch, the neo-Marxist philosopher wrote in his Atheism and Christianity (sorry, my copy is at home and I’m not, so I can’t give an exact reference), “Only an atheist can be a good Christian.” Jurgen Moltmann, the Reformed Christian theologian replied, “Only a Christian can be a good atheist.”

Sandy and Richard are two friends who can most nearly understand why the juxtaposition of those two statements is so important to me. They will also understand why Caravaggio, Cervantes, Madeline Kahn (and even the ridiculous Ayn Rand) are part of the kerfuffle in my mind that is still looking for some kind of resolution of the contradiction. Knowing full well there is none.

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