It took a week in the mail (or half a week and half wandering around campus) but I finally got my mentor’s comments on my thesis proposal. Most were relatively minor issues with grammar in my proposal or a few basic questions. The kicker was the first one, written in the lower left corner of my title page:
"I understand that you will be writing an explanation of the meaning of the soul as worked out by the Golden Dawn. I am concerned, given the nature of esoteric philosophy, about your stance and tone when conducting your study. As you know, there is an important difference between an interested student and being a follower or devotee of a kind of philosophy whose truths, if there are any, require a suspension of disbelief. I assume that you fall into the first category -- an interested student -- just as I am an interested reader. Have you any idea of the projected length of your thesis?"
This is from an outline of my chapters, a detailed bibliography, an abstract and a summary of my approach. The best I can determine, because I spoke in positive terms about the work of the Golden Dawn and its legitimacy historically and now as a form of spirituality, he’s afraid that I may be one of them and writing from a believer’s position instead of an academic one.
I answered the direct question (somewhere between 80 and 100 pages, I hope) and then I wrote him a two and a half page response to the indirect question.
I do not hide the fact (and never have when it has come up with professors) that I have a background as a practitioner of Golden Dawn-derived magical work. I also make it clear that it isn’t work that I do any more and it hasn’t been part of my spiritual practices in quite a few years now. Heck, I’m a Buddhist, even if one largely sympathetic to magical work and happy to participate in rituals done by people.
Reading this, one gets the impression that my mentor may not take kindly to practitioner scholars (though it is ambiguous). I understand his concerns and actually share them in that I don’t want people to use supposed academic work as a bully pulpit for writing an evangelical tract on their beliefs. On the other hand, I can look at other theses in my program (and others) and see plenty of Buddhists, Santeros, Yogis, Unitarians, and even Wiccans writing as such and still doing an academic thesis that works in those areas. I’m glad that I chose not to do something on the OTO or masonry though. I also pointed out that I’m dealing with primary and secondary materials from a period a century ago so my discussions and arguments will similarly be derived from these materials.
I feel like I may be overreacting to a minor comment but then this is the fellow who is chairing my thesis committee and if, from the get-go, we aren’t working from the same space, it will be trouble for everyone down the road.
I think my response is sane and rational and I also deal with some of the history of Western Esotericism as an academic discipline over the last 15 years. We’ll see how it is received.
He did ask if I was including any academic work that refutes or is critical of “esoteric philosophy,” which I must admit to making me scratch my head. Given the complete disdain anything that smacked of the occult has had for the last 150 years, I’m not aware of any academic work that deals with it head on in a serious manner. Culianu’s work deals with Renaissance magic and the other work that I know of deals with other material, like Dee, that is from earlier periods. The work on the 19th and 20th centuries is the work that I and others are doing and my goal is to treat the material as a respectable and serious area of study, given its importance in the lives of tens of thousands of people in that era. The things that people spend their lives on, even if of little value to me or others on a personal level, are worthy of some measure of respect because of the seriousness that others have placed on them.