Despite the comrade-in arms bestowal, Kunzman felt like Lieberman’s custodian rather than his colleague. His vade-mecum left for use at home. A feeling hardly assuaged by his recalling Nietzsche’s “Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor can one live with any repose, security, and consistency. . . “ Nor, when seeing Kunzman’s disappointment, Lieberman added, with a momzeric glint in his eye, “The kite of literature cannot rise to the heights if somebody doesn’t stand below and hold the string.” Kunzman as holder; “literature”, or more accurately, its embodiment, Lieberman, as the kite. Which soaring metaphor caused Kunzman to recall wryly his unfulfilled hope that at their first meeting the renowned critic Lieberman would say to him what Emerson had said to Walt Whitman, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Kunzman suspected that Lieberman feared that he might outshine him at the conference. Lieberman had said to him, “You love to display your erudition and knowledge, your quiver of foreign phrases at the ready.”
Lieberman was also fond of telling literary anecdotes, particularly before or after the conference sessions or at coffee and cake breaks or at the more heavy carousing and tale-telling sessions at the academic watering holes (which he dubbed “the irrigated groves of Academe” in a tone of mock reproof), where he had his own private audience. He would recount a spicy tale about Flaubert or Balzac or somebody closer to home. Such as, the poet Natan Alterman who, when he sat in his favorite café and a waiter asked what to serve him: vermouth, whisky, cognac, vodka, hock, sherry, slivovitz or wishnak, would answer, "The order isn't important." “Nobody remembers what was said at conferences after a month, but the anecdotes endure,” Lieberman told Kunzman. In addition, he loved to pick up a good tale at a conference and add it to his “canon.” He claimed that he “shied away from the apocryphal.”
In this vein, amusing to hear (the first time) was Lieberman’s recounting how, at an international conference on language, Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst and philosopher, gave a presentation on ‘the linguistic nature of psychological symptomatology’ (“the kind of highfalutin metacrap you like, Kunzman,” Lieberman later commented). At one point Lacan stated that “language was beyond the control of the self’, at which point Lieberman exclaimed, “Not in my case,” causing those sitting near him, not among the speaker’s disciples, to laugh heartily.
At conferences nothing irked Lieberman more than “the symbols and signs business” – the mapping of symbols and signs in literary works, though it gave him the opportunity, at some point, to proclaim his definitive, if personal, word on the subject, “If I’m still alive, it’s a good sign.”
Surely at a metaphor conference Lieberman would trot out Proust’s dictum: “I think that only metaphor is able to grant to style a kind of eternity, and it seems that in all Flaubert there’s not even one beautiful metaphor.” If he deemed his listeners worthy, Lieberman might preface Proust’s comment by his, Lieberman’s, Yiddish translation of it, followed by the English. “Proust would like it,” he would add.
At the conference he would strive to live up to his reputation as a mature enfant terrible (aided by his “handling” of difficult or disturbing questions, “I don’t understand the question. I’m not sure you understand the question, either),” a reputation more developed, Kunzman suspected, among the Israelis, though he may have hoped to widen his influence. After all, some critics (like G.B. Shaw or the great Dr. Johnson) earned their reputations, in whole or in part, by their feistiness, their controversality. Kunzman reasoned that the best Lieberman could hope for – in the eyes of foreign academics – was to become a minor celebrity. While they mouthed metaphors in their lectures, Lieberman would spare them his own barely muffled, grunted metaphors from the audience (“the plume of feebleness,” “the nectar of befuddlement”, and so forth), which the lectures of fellow Israeli critics would not be spared. Of course, this judgement may have been tempered by envy – Kunzman’s, or the fact that Lieberman went to the conference instead of him.
Kunzman recalled that Lieberman liked to boast that when Saul Bellow largely absented himself from a Jerusalem conference held in his honor because the famous writer disliked the academic tenor of the speeches, “Bellow was in stalwart attendance on the day I gave my paper . . . you could say I seized the day.” Kunzman chuckled at Lieberman’s play on words on the title of Bellow’s novel, a compromise between a sycophantic laugh and silent ignoring. Seemingly the principal thing that Lieberman brought him back from the conference on metaphor was a (true) story which Kunzman delighted in telling whenever in any conversation the subject of metaphor raised its head. The story is as follows.
An American professor on his way to the conference was interviewed by Israeli security personnel during check-in for a flight to Tel Aviv. When asked why he was flying to Tel Aviv, he replied that he had been invited to a conference on metaphor. The interviewer asked, "What's a metaphor?" When the professor hesitated, momentarily at a loss for words, the interviewer asked sharply, "You're going to a metaphor conference and you don't even know what a metaphor is?" The professor was thereupon hustled away by security guards and interrogated for almost an hour before one of the conference hosts, an Israeli professor from the University of Tel Aviv, intervened and vouched for his legitimacy.
On those occasions when metaphor came up in conversation and Lieberman did not have time to tell the story of the American professor who failed to come up with a definition of metaphor, or if he did not have patience for the person raising the subject and therefore was not deemed worthy of hearing the story, he simply quoted Kenneth Burke that "metaphor brings out the thisness of a that, or the thatness of a this" and the listener had to content himself with the bone thrown him. Sometimes he simply said, “Metaphor comes from the Greek for ‘to carry through,’“ and left the listener to chew on that tidbit. Kunzman once overheard Lieberman say to someone on the telephone, “Here everything is a metaphor. You’d better get used to it.” Obviously not true, but Kunzman understood what he meant.
The American professor who attended the conference on metaphor was in for a second surprise (as Lieberman described it with relish). He had been nurtured in the polite circles of English literature departments of American universities, had apparently sabbaticalled at English ones since he spoke with a slight English accent. (“At least he didn’t affect matching gloves and a bowler hat,” faint praised him Lieberman, who was far from being an Anglophile.His wife said of him that he acted as if the British had never left the country.) Lieberman did a surprisingly good imitation of the professor’s speech and his cocked head, furrowed brow, dedicated gaze – the opposite to Lieberman’s own impatient, frowned, eyes roving response to most speakers. The professor was singularly unprepared for academic lectures accompanied by exaggerated gestures, thunderous flowery language (Lieberman’s oxymoron), and emphatic point-making finger-pointing that endangered the listeners who sat too close to the lecturer. Such theatrics interefered with the American professor’s concentration on the lecture’s contents. Lieberman assured him that not all Israeli lecturers adopted the biblical prophets’ rhetorical approach. He added, with a wink, that the lecturer in question had once played the wind-mill in a sage adaption of ‘Don Quixote.’ A joke that, according to Lieberman, brought forth an appreciative laugh. Lieberman, to be fair, added that the same lecturer when present at conferences invariably listened carefully to the lectures of the other speakers. He did not add that he, Lieberman, (as Kunzman knew) often did not listen, preferring to rebuke an offending speaker. In the rare situations when he felt he had exceeded even his wide carte blanche for ‘criticism’, he gave Kunzman the task of telephoning the offender the next day and apologizing on his behalf. Once again Lieberman’s factotum.
Another story about the American professor (whom Lieberman described as “compellingly warm, but always with a touch of distance and irony – when first he opened his mouth, the word “scrupulous” attached itself to his forehead”) which Lieberman relished to tell was how during dinner together in a restaurant to celebrate the end of the conference, the American indulged in five martinis, after which he banged his fist on the table, declaring in admirable lapidary style that “We critics are parasites, feeding on the endeavors of others!” “When I reminded him the next morning what he had said,” Lieberman would conclude the story, “he denied ever having said it.” Lieberman liked to wait until the chuckles of his listeners subsided, then add, “The professor favored his martinis sans olives. I suggested to him that our levantine olives were an improvement on American imported ones, without success.” And then deliver the second punch line, “Nor would he hear of a pomgranet martini.”
“To his credit,” continued Lieberman, ”he did not mention ‘Moby Dick’ even once. When an American lecturer opens his mouth I fear the first words he will utter are ‘”Moby Dick.”’ And if not the first words, the last.” (Lieberman liked to employ a punch line followed by a post punch line, a proclivity surely influenced by yiddish humor.)
In truth, the dinner with the professor had been less a rollicking affair than Lieberman liked to portray it. To Kunzman, he provided more details. The professor, whose name was Abraham Lincoln Combs, possessed the handsomely craggy features of Old Abe, if lacking the common touch of The Railsplitter, for whom he was named. There was indeed something Licolnesque about Combs. Combs’ cadenced speech may have been copied, consciously or unconsciously, from Lincoln’s careful phrasing. Combs, like Lincoln, wore a bow-tie, which had come back into fashion. Lieberman didn’t like ties of any sort, being influenced by the open-shirted sartorial favoring of Israel’s founders and pioneers; he attended international conferences minus the unfortunate accoutrement. One day, seeing Kunzman wearing a tie – he had returned to the office from a circumcision – Lieberman was seized with laughing. Sometimes the simplest things could send Lieberman into paroxysms of laughter. But then he liked nonsense light verse, which Kunzman couldn’t abide. If Combs possessed many attributes of his namesake, he lacked one: Lincoln’s ability to hold liquor, as evidenced by the brief, but telling, spilling of his fourth martini on the sleeve of his tweed jacket while the second sleeve hovered dangerously close to entering Lieberman’s glass of red wine. The wine was as far as Lieberman would go alcoholically in the interests of bonhomie to meeting his colleague’s martinis, still preferring the ‘national drink’ – fresh orange juice. Combs was pretty far into his cups as evidenced by his repeating twice the expression “At ease in Zion”, apparently in reference to himself with the martinis. Each time, Lieberman responded, “May your shadow never grow less,” which, he confessed to Kunzman, may have been prompted by his matching wine for martini. “Would you believe, Kunzman, when Combs waxed lyric over ‘alcoholic beverages’ like a poor man’s Malcolm Lowry, I replied, ‘Ah for the days of the Mandate when British officers drank gin tonics and their wives imbibed pink gins on the veranda of the King David Hotel.’ My irony – I hope I was still capable of irony at that point – prompted no response from my guest.” (Irony indeed, thought Kunzman, since despite Lieberman’s having been born too late to be a member of the anti-British underground organizations, the “Irgun” and “Lehi”, he admired “their work.”)
There followed a silence of some minutes which Combs interrupted thrice. The first time to claim an ancestor at the Boston Tea Party. “The Earl of Grey?” Lieberman asked innocently, then complimented him on his “anti-British pedigree.” The other times to repeat the same refrain, “A martini should be shaken and not stirred.”
Kunzman chuckled. “He took that from James Bond.”
“Oho, another movie buff,” grimaced Lieberman. “I thought maybe he got it from Henry James.” Lieberman was not a movie-goer. Presumably, he considered movies (he never used the word ‘cinema’) a step down from literature. Despite his lack of enthusiasm for movies, he was fond of a movies related story which he trotted out whenever the the subject of movies was raised, if he deemed that he had a sufficiently entitled audience. HowYul Brenner, in Israel for the filming of ‘Exodus’, was excited about being introduced to Ben-Gurion, the famous first Israeli prime minister (who was not a movie buff). Brenner was presented as the star of ‘The King and I”. ‘Which one were you?’ the prime minister asked, to the discomfort of Brenner. A true story, though Lieberman was not concerned whether a story was true or not, if it was brilliant and edifying or amusing to relate. In his words, “I have been known to rearrange the details a bistle to make them more interesting.”
“Anyhow,” Lieberman resumed his tale, “Combs then mumbled something I didn’t catch followed by something I barely caught about Keats describing how ‘ethereal’ claret mounts into the brain ‘and makes one a Hermes.’ ‘A typewriter?’ I jested.
‘No the god of eloquence’, he replied.” Which last, continued Lieberman, recalled to Combs Delmore Schwartz’s poem ‘True Eloquence Mocks Eloquence’, or maybe it was the ‘at ease in Zion phrase’ for he rose to his feet, glass in hand as if to deliver a toast, extremely careful not to spill a drop and, further to his credit, finally on his feet , not swaying once, began to recite it:
Eloquence laughs at rhetoric.
Is ill at ease in Zion,
Or baa-baas like the lucid lamb.
And snickers at the lion.
And smiles, being meticulous.
Because truth is ridiculous.
What had impressed Lieberman was that, despite his drinking, perhaps still able to muster faithfulness to his inordinate concern for his reputation, the professor never raised his voice, a model of vocal decorum, even though the voice slurred at times and the watery blue of its owner’s eyes had glazed over somewhat, proof that the Apollonian had not given way completely to the Dionysian. True, added Lieberman, his “baa-baas” were less like a lucid lamb’s than a somnolent one , but that is a minor fault save to children’s book authors.
t one stage, Combs had leaned close to Lieberman, confiding that “I see myself as a story-teller. It began with the cavemen sitting around campfires telling stories. They are my ancestors.” “This,” exclaimed Lieberman to Kunzman, “from an exclusively non-fiction writer! He then expressed the desire ‘to locate the true site of Golgatha’. ‘Nor dos plat mir ois’, I said in Yiddish, perhaps under the influence of the wine; it took me a few moments to realize that Combs did not understand Yiddish. I then resorted to my Churchillian English to dissuade him. ‘I would not recommend doing so nocturnally, Professor Combs. Maybe tomorrow. Nothing like the diurnal light of Jerusalem.’ The last thing I needed was being a critic-cum-tourist guide, and a religious tourist guide to boot. With a sense of relief, I deposited Combs in his hotel. The whole evening left me feeling that I had been one of the schlamiel heros in a shtick of the American humorist S.J. Perelman, whose placing them in sticky situations in sites around the world inevitably struck me as a parody of Somerset Maughm.” (Maughm, incidentally, was not one of Lieberman’s favorites. “The only memorable thing he wrote was, ‘There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.’“)
Yet, despite the humorous aspects of Combs visit to Jerusalem, Lieberman retained an affection and a respect for the American professor. Perhaps because, when they bid one another good-bye at the end of the conference, Combs had embraced him warmly. “It was like being embraced by Lincoln,” Lieberman said. Lincoln was Lieberman’s favorite American president.