Article on ‘A Very Square Peg: The Strange and Remarkable Life of the Polymath Robert Eisler’ (opinion)
Over the years, I’ve mentioned podcasts here every so often — and have been a guest on a couple — without ever making one the main topic of a column. Discovering A Very Square Peg: The Strange and Remarkable Life of the Polymath Robert Eisler made it clear that the time had definitely come.
In recounting the sui generis scholarly career of a figure all but completely forgotten since his death in 1949, A Very Square Peg counts as an unusual work of scholarship in its own right — one it is difficult to imagine having nearly as much impact presented in any other medium. It debuted in June as a weekly series running to nine episodes, most of them a little under one hour long. The whole run is now available from the New Books Network and can be downloaded from iTunes, Spotify and the Podcast App, among other services. In addition there is an interview with the creator, Brian Collins, a professor of classics and world religions at Ohio University, conducted by New Books Network founder and editor Marshall Poe. (Ohio University provided funding and other support for the project.)
Before expressing enthusiasm, let me admit to a brief period of suspicion.
Robert Eisler’s life sounds like something Thomas Pynchon and Roberto Bolaño might have brainstormed for a shared character in their fiction. A cursory list of elements found in his biography and bibliography would necessarily include book theft, ancient cosmology, Nazi concentrations camps, economics, classical literature, art history, speculations on biblical history, and sadomasochism. (He may also have been an influence on I Was a Teenage Werewolf, the title character of which was played by the young Michael Landon.) Collins mentions in the first episode that no book-length study of Eisler exists, while the entry on him in Wikipedia was created only in late 2018 — which would not have been long before production on A Very Square Peg presumably got underway.
Pranks, hoaxes and imaginatively embellished quasi-documentaries are not exactly unknown in the world of podcasting — so a certain amount of due diligence was in order. But it proved easy enough to locate the astonishing array of monographs attributed to Eisler in library catalogs, with a number of them reviewed in the scholarly journals of his day. Several are available from the Internet Archive, including his first book, a slender volume on value theory that appeared in Austria in 1902, when he was 20 years old.
Also free for the downloading is his final (and posthumous) work, Man Into Wolf: An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism, and Lycanthropy, published in 1951. At the start of A Very Square Peg, Collins recounts finding a paperback reprint — one graced with lurid and cheesy cover art — in a used bookstore as a graduate student in 2008. The main text is a lecture Eisler delivered to a meeting of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1948, arguing that violent human behavior may have its origins in the imitation of lupine hunting packs by some of our Ice Age ancestors. The 30-page paper is followed by 200 more of endnotes, some of which have their own footnotes. Even at that length, Eisler’s erudition feels crammed into the book like a piece of overstuffed luggage. The sources in several languages include ethnological monographs, reports of clinical psychiatric research, and the literature and religious traditions (ancient, medieval and modern) of too many cultures to list.
One offhand reference shifts the reader’s attention from the terrain of anthropological speculation to a concrete historical setting. In a note on the human body’s tolerance for extremes of cold, Eisler gives the testimony of personal experience: “I myself have had to stand in ersatz-cotton clothes without overcoat for many weary hours on the Buchenwald parade ground at temperatures far below freezing-point.” Elsewhere he cites a Latin motto that haunts the whole book: Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.
When Collins discovered Eisler’s strange final book — and for some while afterward — the author’s name was unfamiliar and details of his life hard to come by. Collins specializes in the study of Indian religion, making research into an obscure Austrian scholar from outside that field something of a distraction from the work he needed to do at the time. But Eisler published a number of books in German and English on the early history of Christianity that provoked some controversy in the early 1930s, making him at least a minor figure in the development of religious studies.
There was also an economist named Robert Eisler who published work on monetary policy early in the Great Depression and who had been almost but not quite entirely forgotten by experts on the topic. As it turned out, the author of Man Into Wolf and The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel had also written This Money Maze: A Way Out of the Economic World Crisis, then visited the United States during FDR’s first term to testify in congressional hearings on the impact of abandoning the gold standard.
In lieu of a bio-bibliographical thumbnail sketch (which would not be much more than a list of titles in any case), let me instead refer the reader to the Wikipedia entry on Eisler mentioned previously. Much of it was written by Collins, as he confirmed when I asked. Parts of it incorporate material covered by A Very Square Peg — albeit without the depth, context or flair.
Each episode is detailed but surprisingly fast-moving. Any apprehension you may have at the thought of listening to a nine-hour lecture is misplaced: while Collins is the narrator and commentator pulling it all together, he incorporates interviews with specialists able to discuss the historical circumstances and intellectual substance of Eisler’s far-flung career. The diversity of his scholarly interests and the range of places he lived while pursuing them (or found himself forced by circumstances to stay) make the podcast as much a serial as a documentary.
It also makes use of voice actors to render the primary sources audible. Besides Eisler himself, we hear from Sigmund Freud, Gershom Scholem and Gilbert Murray, and also from figures whose aspersions on his character and work fill out the depiction of a complex personality. An impulsive criminal offense early in his career (nonviolent but felonious) hung over him for the rest of his life. Detractors accused him of putting forward arguments he didn’t entirely believe. Friendlier critics replied that the sources Eisler discovered and the connections he made were of scholarly value, whatever his intention. He tended to submit manuscripts considerably longer than editors commissioned, and more than one publisher refused to deal with him a second time when his “corrections” to page proofs amounted to a rewriting of the book. My impression is that he was a difficult person to have as a friend.
Eisler’s life was a show of defiance against the drive to pigeonhole, whether by language or by discipline. He once stated in a letter, “I have the courage to err.” At the same time, his interests do not appear random or totally disconnected, although how they hang together proves difficult to put one’s finger on. He was a Viennese Jewish intellectual in a period of sui generis geniuses, of which Freud and Wittgenstein are only the best-known examples. But while Eisler crossed paths with such closely studied figures as Carl Jung, Albert Einstein and Walter Benjamin, his place in 20th-century intellectual history is as a blur at the edge of the group photo, moving just out of focus as the camera clicks.
In reconstructing Robert Eisler’s interdisciplinary odyssey, A Very Square Peg also depicts something of the process of researching and presenting it. The interview making up its de facto 10th episode is required listening for anyone interested in how podcasting can translate scholarship into a form able to find and reach an audience. And a now-conspicuous gap in the monographic literature will finally be filled by Brian Collins’s Robert Eisler and the Magic of the Combinatory Mind: The Forgotten Life of a 20th-Century Austrian Polymath, due from Palgrave Macmillan next month.