Postgraduate Lives: Occult fascination

David Foster, PhD student at the University of Liverpool
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The Independent Online

David Foster is in his fifties and is about to start a PhD at Liverpool University on the occult

David Foster is in his fifties and is about to start a PhD at Liverpool University on the occult

I get a mixed reaction when I tell people what I do. I usually have to go into a long explanation of the occult tradition and how it has been marginalised because of prejudice and fear. The popular perception of the occult is ghosties and ghoulies, which is a caricature. But the occult has influenced a whole body of scholarly thought, from Newton's involvement with alchemy and Pythagorean thought, to Jung's work on the unconscious. My aim is to use a scholarly perspective to look at contemporary perceptions and interpretations of the occult.

The occult is a controversial subject that has been grossly sensationalised, and the media doesn't help. Look at Channel 4's recent series Masters of Darkness. From a scholarly point of view, it was superficial, gratuitously salacious and misleading.

I have an eclectic background, ranging from the history of religion to theatre. I lived in Canada for many years, where I became very interested in documentary film, but later worked in France on building restoration. When I returned to the UK in 1994, I started a BA in Arabic and Middle Eastern studies at Exeter, but went on to research alternative education, finally completing a heritage degree at Plymouth University, followed by a PGCE at Exmouth.

Then, in 2003, I attended a conference at Bristol University on "Magical Belief from 1800 to the Present". I heard a fascinating paper by Dr Joanne Pearson from Cardiff University, who was teaching an MA on magic and religion. Her paper "Rebel Angels - Magic and the Academy" argued for the centrality of occult and esoteric ideas to the Western tradition, ideas such as alchemy, ceremonial magic and astrology. I found this paper so absorbing that I applied to Cardiff to do an MPhil on the origins and authenticity of contemporary occult texts, because much that is published today about new-age esotericism and the occult is highly prejudiced.

Dr Pearson is now at Liverpool, and I'll be doing my PhD there under her supervision. I will explore, among other things, the cultural significance of the 19th-century occult revival and its consequences. This includes the mixed fortunes of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a magical society whose members included the poet W B Yeats and the pioneer of scientific occultism, Aleister Crowley. Crowley is usually depicted as a notorious magician, but I am going to treat him in a more academic way.

The topic would have been difficult to do 10 years ago, but times have changed and there is so much more now in the public domain. I take a sober approach. I'm a sceptic, but I'm not a cynic.

I work part-time, doing night shifts at a hotel, so I'm self-supporting. I earn in order to study, and am an enthusiast of lifelong learning. If you want to really benefit from further education, Britain is probably the best place to do it.