Postgraduate Lives: Occult fascination

David Foster, PhD student at the University of Liverpool


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.

caitlind1@aol.com

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