A study in cultish madness

Since my last post, so many people have sent me messages asking what my research was actually about that I have decided to write an explanation. You only have yourselves to blame.

One of the difficulties one faces when writing a proposal for a PhD is to find a niche in one’s subject where there is work left to be done. I have met academics in my time who have written PhDs on Virgil or Homer, but how they managed to come up with a new angle, never mind how they managed to get a handle on everything that had been written already, is completely beyond me. Personally, I decided that something a little more obscure was the way forward.

I had an interest in ancient philosophy and I was also lucky enough as a part of my degree to do an undergraduate course on the rise of Christianity in the ancient world. These two fields of study collided when I started to learn about Neoplatonism, a branch of thinking in late antiquity which is notoriously difficult to define. In origin and essence, Neoplatonism was everything that was said, thought and written about Plato, Aristotle and other key thinkers in the generations after they lived. Initially, this was the men studying in the schools in which Plato and Aristotle themselves taught (Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, so the process started with him), but as the centuries rolled by Neoplatonism became the wildly diverse writings that were produced generations and even centuries after Plato and Aristotle were writing and teaching. People also wrote intensively about Pythagoras and some ancient scholars became interested in finding what they believed to be religious and philosophical allegories in the writings of Homer. The study of what these men wrote at the time is thus an entire field in itself – if you like, it’s the study of Platonic, Aristotelian and Pythaorean reception in the ancient world. Its most famous and respected proponent was a man called Plotinus, who lived and wrote in the 3rd century AD and had a strong influence on Christian philosophy; I specialised in the men who came shortly after him.

Despite its noble origins as an intellectual field of study, Neoplatonism took on a life of its own and morphed into something really rather bizarre as the years rolled by. This was partly because it was influenced during this period by the growth of religions that focused on developing a personal relationship with one’s god, but there were other complicating factors too. Suffice to say, by the time you get to the period in which I specialised, Neoplatonism had become something pretty weird and wonderful: an intensely intellectual field of study on the one hand and a downright barking set of pseudo-philosophical cultish ravings on the other. I do not exaggerate – better scholars than I have said as much.

Most of the writings from the period we are talking about were so mystical and incomprehensible that modern scholars had no interest in bothering with them. As a result, many of the texts remained untranslated until a movement led by Richard Sorabji, who was a Professor at King’s College while I was studying and researching. Sorabji oversaw a series of texts and translations, making many of these works available for the first time to undergraduates and indeed to anyone else who was bonkers enough to be interested. He specialised in the commentators on Aristotle, the scores of ancient scholars who had spent their lives poring over Aristotelian texts and writing down their thoughts on them.

So I ended up wading around in this quagmire of growing information in this developing field and, prompted by my Supervisor, took a look at a text nicknamed the De Mysteriis by an author called Iamblichus, a Syrian thinker who was writing in Greek during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. He was particularly keen on Pythagoras, and wrote masses of pseudo-mystical nonsense about him; we have one complete surviving work which has frankly undeniable parallels with the Gospels and presents Pythagoras as what can only be described as a Christ figure. He also wrote various other works including the De Mysteriis, on which I wrote my research and which is fundamentally about theurgy or divine magic. Yeah. I told you it was weird.

So. Theurgy. It is pretty difficult to define without presenting my entire thesis, but in essence it was a range of mystical rituals, all with the aim of connecting humans with the divine. You’d recognise some of them from your general knowledge of the ancient world: oracles, for example, through which the gods supposedly spoke to men. Iamblichus believed very firmly that there was a right way and a wrong way of doing these divine rituals, and the De Mysteriis is his authoritative account of what’s what when it comes to doing this stuff. As a result it is – inevitably – absolutely barking. This is not exactly what I said in my thesis, but it’s the honest truth in summary. Indeed, the De Mysteriis is so barking that previous scholars had largely consigned it to obscurity and it had not been translated into English since 1911. So, that’s where I came along. My PhD was a study of the work and through that research I hooked up with another couple of scholars – far older and more prestigious in the field than I was – and who had in the previous decade taken on the task of producing a modern edition and translation of this text. They were – to put it mildly – rather regretting doing so. One of them had already had a heart attack, although the jury was out as to whether the De Mysteriis was entirely to blame or only partially. Long story short, they drafted me in as Chief Editor and I finished it for them. My PhD was also published.

As I wrote last week, I did not enjoy the process of academic research and I regretted signing up for it. However, this does not mean that I was uninterested in much of what I was doing. What it did reveal is what I should have been studying, and it wasn’t Classics. During the process of my research I realised that what fascinated me more than anything else in the world was (a) what makes people do, think and believe what they do and (b) how it is possible to persuade even the most intelligent and educated person of something which is provably impossible. In simple terms, why do people believe in miracles? Why did Iamblichus believe that a truly inspired (for which read fully possessed) spokesperson for the gods could be struck on the back of the neck with an axe and not be injured? Did he really believe that the famous oracles of which he spoke were still functioning? (We know for a fact that most of them had been disbanded by his time – one that he writes about fulsomely had become a Christian campsite by the time he was writing). Following my interests, and whilst I was meant to be working exclusively on Neoplatonism, I ended up going down all sorts of rabbit holes. I read about early 20th century research into “shell shock” (now known as PTSD); I read purported accounts from the 19th century of children possessed by the devil; I read about mass conversion rallies such as those led by Billy Graham; I read about attacks of crowd hysteria, such as faining fits or hysterical laughing in nunneries and girls’ boarding schools; I read about witch trials; I read about Zaehner’s LSD-fuelled research into what would happen to his mind when, enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs, it was exposed to art or literature. (Not much as it turns out – he just couldn’t stop laughing). In short, I read a wildly diverse range of stuff about possession, altered states of the mind and all sorts of jolly interesting weirdness. Long story short, I should have switched to anthropology.

My interest in such things remains to this day and in other guises I have written articles about belief, conversion and religiosity. I even dipped my toe into novel-writing and wrote a dystopian Young Adult novel about a world in which beliefs are controlled and dictated. Much of my spare time these days is spent reading about a variety of cult-like beliefs which are developing rapidly and spreading online. I might even write about it one day.

Sliding Doors

As thousands of students receive their A level, BTEC and T level results this morning, I’ve been thinking about moments in life that I and no doubt many others from my era nickname “sliding doors”: moments that mark a turning point in the course of your life. The 1998 film Sliding Doors explores the idea that the course of one woman’s career as well as her love-life hung upon whether or not she managed to catch a particular tube-train; it follows both scenarios in parallel – one in which she catches the train, one in which she doesn’t.

In real life, of course, without the omnipotency of a film director, one cannot do this. We cannot see the different scenarios played out and choose which one we prefer. We can look back at pivotal moments in life and acknowledge that something shifted in our lives at that moment, but we cannot know what would have happened in an alternative universe. In the context of romantic relationships, this concept is expressed wonderfully in another 1990s classic, one of my favourite songs by Pulp, called Something’s Changed. In this song, Jarvis Cocker explores the chance nature of his meeting a partner and how it might never have happened; it also uses the conceit of imagining himself writing a particular song on a particular day, which then became about that person:

I wrote this song two hours before we met.
I didn’t know your name, or what you looked like yet.
I could have stayed at home and gone to bed.
I could have gone to see a film instead.
You might have changed your mind and seen your friends.
Life would have been very different then.

Later in the song he returns to the conceit and perhaps my favourite moment (probably upsettting to the more romantically inclined among you), is when he even ponders that without his partner, he might have met somebody different:

When we woke up that morning we had no way of knowing
That in a matter of hours we’d change the way we were going.
Where would I be now?
Where would I be now if we’d never met?
Would I be singing this song to someone else instead …?

The tone of the whole song is wistful but not melancholy, nor is it overtly gushing – those of you who know Jarvis Cocker will understand that he doesn’t really do gushing. The girlfriend is given a voice, but she uses it to tell Jarvis to “stop asking questions that don’t matter anyway”. The general conclusion is: ah, well.

I spoke to a friend this week – on Zoom because we live 300 miles apart – and she too is at a turning point in life. We spoke about sliding doors moments and I told her about how miserable I was doing my PhD and how eventually I decided not to pursue an academic career because I realised that the lifestyle was making me deeply unhappy. “I finished it,” I said. “But it nearly killed me.” This friend then asked me something that nobody has asked me before. She asked me whether I regretted finishing it.

Lots of people have asked me whether I am glad I finished my research. That tends to be the expected tone of the conversation. It is in my view a marker of how insightful this particular friend is that she worded it differently. Do I regret finishing it? Do I regret putting myself through that process? It got me thinking. Maybe I should.

Looking back, the reasons I finished it were all in relation to external pressures. I had received funding from the British Academy and that is very hard to come by – I would have felt guilty that I had taken somebody else’s place and squandered such a privilege. My parents would have been disappointed. My Supervisor would have been disappointed. Finally, and perhaps most foolishly of all, I didn’t like quitting and I still believed that the qualification was important. So, I soldiered on and I finished the thing. I cried multiple times a day. A low point was sitting in my college room and pondering how long it would take somebody to notice if I died in there.

Not only did I finish the PhD, my deep unhappiness and loathing for the life drove me to finish it in record time. Two and a half years. For the last 4 to 6 months when I was officially “writing up”, three copies of the completed thesis sat on my desk, all printed out and ready to be bound. I hid this even from my Supervisor. It was not the done thing to finish in less than the standard three years, plus I had nowhere else to go once my thesis was completed. I had a place to start teacher training in September, but until then I needed to hang on to my college room. So I waited. Eventually, the thesis was bound and sent to the examiners and ultimately my Viva went without a hitch. PhDs are not officially graded, but truthfully there is a hierarchy to what the examiners may say to you at the end of your Viva. Best case scenario is that they mark in pencil a few minor errors or typos and tell you that these do not require correction in order for the thesis to be accepted; worst case scenario, they tell you to tear the thing up and never darken their doors again. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, with corrections advised or sometimes a re-write of some sections recommended. Mine was waved through with the minor pencil errors. The examiners shook my hand at the end of the session and used my brand new title for the first time. Being me, I did correct the minor errors even though I didn’t have to, and submitted it to Senate House.

My PhD has brought me some benefits, not least an exposure to teaching which ultimately became my career choice and is not, I think, something I would have considered as a possibility had I not been thrust into it. It has been useful, as a woman, to sign off as “Dr. E Williams” when writing to certain types of people or institutions – until we bring down the partiarchy (work ongoing), it can be handy to let the recipient of your complaint assume that you are a man (which those certain sorts of people or institutions inevitably tend to do when you use an academic title). My PhD is also something I am proud of, solely because I know just what it took me to complete it. Many of my research peers fell by the wayside (ironically, all of them claiming to be loving the process of research, while I was always very vocal about how miserable I was finding it). A few years ago, I was invited back by my university as something of a voice of doom on a panel about postgraduate research: it’s tough, and most people don’t really enjoy it. So be careful what you wish for.

Back to my lovely friend’s question. Do I regret finishing my research? I have always told myself that I don’t, since I made it through and have something to show for it. My field is pretty niche (true of most PhDs) but my contribution was significant and is still cited in other people’s research in this field right across the world. Quitting would have meant that I had a bad experience and had nothing to show for it. Also, when it comes to sliding doors in life I think it’s best not to have regrets: you made the decisions you made or things happened and that’s how it is – there is little point in asking yourself what you could or should have done differently. But the way my friend worded that question really has made me think about that particular decision a little differently.

Sometimes in life, putting yourself through more pain truly isn’t worth it. The more I think about that awful time, the more my decision seems a little crazy. Much as I cannot see the alternatives played out with the clarity of a film, I can make sensible and reasonable predictions about what might have happened. My career would still have worked out: I had already been exposed to teaching (that happened in my very first year of research), so I probably would have chosen to switch to teacher training if I’d had the foresight and courage to jump ship when I could and should have done. I would have started work earlier, bought a house more cheaply than I did, paid into my pension for longer. If I’m honest, I’m not sure that my PhD has benefitted me in gaining work to the extent that I have told myself it has; my first class Honours degree and Masters at Distinction level was probably plenty and I’m not quite sure why I’ve never considered that before. So in truth, I cannot think of a negative outcome that would have happened due to quitting, other than the immense courage it would have taken to do so.

It is healthy in life to have no regrets, and I’m certainly not going to beat myself up about a decision I made in my mid-20s. I shall continue to make use of my title, and maintain pride in what turned out to be the toughest achievement I have ever faced in life. Go me. But if I could go back in time and tell myself what to do in 1997, I’d tell myself that the brave decision was not, in fact, to soldier on and do what was expected of me; the brave decision would have been to run for the hills. Sometimes, quitting is the bravest act of all.

Image from the British film Sliding Doors, starring Gwynneth Paltrow and John Hannah.