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Suzanne Newcombe (The Open University)

'The Varieties of Modern Yoga in early Twentieth-century Britain'

This paper will underline the variety and complexity of the ways that yoga was explored during the first half of the twentieth century. As a way into exploring the multiple milieus in which yoga appeared, the paper will begin with the Theosophical Society – demonstrating how this organisation was more of a meeting point for those exploring alternative ways of thinking and being. Short biographical sketches of Hari Prasad Shastri (1882-1956), Ernest Wood (1888-1965) and Gerald Yorke (1901-1983) will show some of the different directions these explorations could take. A second strand of influence which placed yoga within a deeply meaningful understanding of physical culture, mental control and relaxation will then be introduced by introducing the physical culture journal Health & Strength (1932-1986) and the figures of Desmond Dunne (b. 1913) and Peter McIntosh (1915-2000).

In coining the term ‘Modern Yoga’, Elizabeth de Michelis (2004) asserted that something new was happening regarding beliefs and practices relating to yoga within the modern period. While Vivekananda’s Theosophical-influenced Raja Yoga (1896) was certainly a symbolic watershed, this paper will provide a much broader context for the ways which yoga intersected with many different milieus and inspired a variety of enterprising individuals during the early twentieth century.

Suzanne Newcombe is a Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University and a Research Fellow at Inform, based in Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London. In 2019, her monograph Yoga in Britain: Stretching Spirituality and Educating Yogis was published by Equinox. She is currently in the final months of research on an ERC Horizon 2020 project AYURYOG: Entangled Histories of Yoga, Ayurveda and Alchemy in South Asia.

Steven Sutcliffe (University of Edinburgh)

‘Mystics, Masters and Teachers’: Authority and Seekership in the Interwar Period'

This paper examines the rise of the ‘Master’ as an authority figure during the interwar period. One response to the 1914-18 war was widespread disillusion with Christian churches. Another was the continuity, even growth, of ‘post-Christian’ religion: for example, Spiritualist membership remained steady and Theosophy peaked in the late 1920s. The figure of the ‘Master’ emerged as part of a wider visibility of new (religious) authorities. A key interwar text on this is God is My Adventure (1935) by the Polish-British journalist Romauld ‘Rom’ Landau (1899-1974). The book presents the author’s meetings with a series of ‘modern mystics, masters and teachers’ (his subtitle) such as Rudolf Steiner, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Meher Baba, G.I.Gurdjieff and Piotr Ouspensky. Landau describes a field in which reflexive ‘seekers’ were able to interact with post-Christian teachers, Russian mystics, and ‘Oriental’ and ‘Levantine’ gurus, each claiming authority as a ‘Master’. Landau represented in an accessible style the challenge to Christian monopoly on truth by new claimants. As a result (religious) authority became pluralised and relativized.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices and co-editor (with Ingvild Gilhus) of New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion and (with Carole Cusack) of The Problem of Invented Religions. He is currently working on the European Life Reform movement in the early-mid C20th and on the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky movement.

Jules Evans (Queen Mary, University of London)

'Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and the rise of "empirical spirituality"'


This talk will explore how Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard tried to overcome the 'war between science and religion' which Huxley's grandfather - Thomas Huxley - had so eagerly waged, by suggesting a middle-path - empirical spirituality. This fusion of spiritual and psychological methods and language was a development of the work of the Society for Psychical Research, where Heard was a board member. The two helped to develop empirical spirituality in California, helping to inspire what would become Transpersonal Psychology. Empirical spirituality has proved very influential today, particularly with the science of mindfulness, but also with the science of psychedelics - a science which is deeply informed by Huxley's ideas. 

Jules Evans is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations (2012), The Art of Losing Control (2017) and Holiday from the Self: An Accidental Ayahuasca Adventure (2019). He was a BBC New Generation Thinker in 2013. He co-runs the London Philosophy Club and recently set up the Bristol Philosophy Club. He blogs at

Alana Harris (Kings College, London)

'Unruly Bodies: the Metaphysical, the Psychical and ‘Rational Religion’ in mid-Twentieth Century Britain'


In an extended correspondence in May 1939 about the Borley poltergeist, the feminist, lawyer and Senior Medical Office of the London County Council, Dr Letitia Fairfield, confessed to Harry Price: ‘I am constantly on the look-out for a ghost in whom I can believe …’. Following her conversion to Catholicism in 1923 – which Fairfield ascribed decades later as a reaction to ‘scientific materialism in the fullest sense’ and an avid consumption of ‘Rational Press Association publications’ – this search surpassed her sceptical desire to meet the ‘walled-up nun’ of Borley Rectory.


In addition to her pre-eminence in progressive public health initiatives surrounding epilepsy and maternal mortality, Fairfield cultivated a longstanding scholarly interest in the history of witchcraft, was part of a medical research group investigating spiritual healing, weighed into controversies about the Lancashire female stigmatic Teresa Higginson and, in her retirement, joined the Council of the Society for Psychical Research (1965-76).


Encompassing these diverse interests was a fascination with the metaphysical, the mystical and an unerring focus on the female body – as burned, bleeding, levitating, emaciated, experimented upon or healed. Corporeal convulsions, the connections between physical and spiritual health, and the potential transcendence of the constraints of modern medicine and materiality animated her lifelong interrogation of faith, science and the limits of rationality in twentieth-century Britain. For Fairfield, as for many of her contemporaries in the interwar years, a commitment to modernity, scientific rationalism and mainstream religion need not preclude an engagement with spiritualism, parapsychology and the occult.

Alana Harris is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at King's College. Her research interests span issues related to British identity in the nineteenth and twentieth century, encompassing gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality and religiosity. She is particularly interested in the manifestation of these self-definitions and understandings, individually and collectively, through ritual and performance, pilgrimage, material and visual cultures and spatial and narrative practices. Her recent publications include The Schism of 68: Catholics, Contraception and Humanae Vitae in Europe, 1945-1975 (2018) and Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism, 1945-1982 (2016). 

Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster)

'Sorting the ‘mysticism’ from the ‘meat’? C.K. Ogden, Psyche and the return of magic'

In this paper I will explore the career of the Cambridge linguist, philosopher and psychologist C.K. Ogden, reading it as a modernist project which has surprising things to say about modernism’s assumed split between a rationalising modernity and a revived occultism.

Ogden’s work is most often seen as tied utterly to a rationalised, scientised modernity. James McElvenny in his recent work (Language and Meaning in the Age of Modernism, 2018), for example, links Ogden closely to H.G. Wells’ ‘faith in science and technology to effect progress for humanity’. It is certainly the case that in his influential The Meaning of Meaning (1923), written with I.A. Richards, Ogden aimed at using the approach of a rationalistic science to highlight what he saw as errors in the understanding and use of language. His key aim, as expressed there, was the elimination of what he called ‘word magic’, that is, the tendency to believe that if a word for something exists, then that thing exists too. This aim was key also in his invention of the constructed language Basic English – which Ogden called ‘the enemy of Word Magic’ – through the 1920s. This rationalising project can be seen also in Ogden’s work for the journal Psyche. In 1921, he claimed in an article that, in relation to the new discipline of psychology, the role of Psyche was to help ‘sort the “mysticism” from the “meat”’.

However, the relation between Ogden’s work and a rationalised modernity is not so straightforward as this description suggests. Psyche had begun in 1920 under the title The Psychic Research Quarterly, and its first editorial announced that it had been launched in order to investigate spiritualist phenomena because ‘the problems of Psychical Research are among the most intricate and the most important with which the human intellect has ever grappled’. While attention to spiritualism did wane under Ogden’s editorship from 1923, occult thinking in relation to language re-entered Ogden’s orbit in the late 1920s. Between 1929 and 1931 Ogden, the enemy of ‘word magic’, collaborated with James Joyce in promoting and in translating into Basic English portions of Joyce’s Work in Progress, published eventually in 1939 as Finnegans Wake, a novel in which words – far from being anchored to the concrete, as Basic English claimed to ensure – have been, in the words of Sergei Eisenstein, ‘turned into abracadabra’.

By paying attention to these tensions and incongruities in Ogden’s work, the paper will argue for a particular relation between a rationalised modernity and the occult in the period, one that suggests a far closer imbrication than is usually assumed between scientific knowledge, rationality and magical thinking.

Leigh Wilson is Professor of English Literature at the University of Westminster. She is the author of Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult (EUP, 2013; paperback 2015) and co-editor of The Edinburgh Critical Edition of the Selected Writing of Andrew Lang (2 vols, EUP, 2015).

Annebella Pollen (University of Brighton)

'Enchanted modern objects: Kibbo Kift’s mundane magick'


Founded in 1920 as a splinter group of the Boy Scouts by commercial artist John Hargrave, the utopian interwar camping and campaigning group, the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, drew on antiquarian and cutting-edge beliefs and ideas to propose an all-encompassing cultural solution to post-war ills that would make them 'more modern than the moderns'. Little remembered now, but boasting high-profile endorsement in their own time, the thousand-strong group offers an intriguing case study of aborted ambitions for a spiritual new age.


Holism was a core part of Kibbo Kift’s philosophies. Hargrave drew on new thinking in biology, especially where it seemed to confirm the wisdom of the ancients; this was seen most clearly in the ideas of philosopher Henri Bergson and his neo-Vitalist metaphysical writings, which suggested an unknowable and invisible force at the root of all living things. Neo-Vitalism seemed to offer a romantic reinsertion of spirit into an otherwise disenchanted, mechanistic world. Asserting that ‘phrases such as 'dead' matter and 'inert' matter have gone by the board’ in modern science,  the knowledge that atomic energy coursed through all material things supported Kibbo Kift’s cosmic belief in the oneness of the Universe. This allowed, in Hargrave’s conception, teapots and tram tickets, gutter-gratings and collar studs, concrete and cow dung to each be understood as manifestations of one great spiritual power.


Kibbo Kift established a unique visual style across its insignia and regalia. Drawing on an eclectic blend of historical revivalism, primitivism and futurism, the group’s appearance was informed by Hargrave’s encyclopaedic esoteric knowledge and his paid employment in advertising. Kibbo Kift’s art also had a magical purpose; its occult powers were operated like spells. Through situating Kibbo Kift in its cultural milieu, the presentation will follow Alex Owen and Michael Saler in arguing for the integral relationship between the mystical and the modern. In exploring Kibbo Kift’s claims about the magical agency of art and design through the prism of current material culture studies, this paper also explores ways of ‘thinking with’ enchanted things.

Annebella Pollen is Principal Lecturer and Academic Programme Leader in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton. Her books include Mass Photography: Collective Histories of Everyday Life; a visual study of an interwar camping and campaigning group, The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift: Intellectual Barbarians (with accompanying 2015-16 exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery); Dress History: New Directions in Theory and Practice (co-edited with Charlotte Nicklas) and Photography Reframed: New Visions in Contemporary Photographic Culture (co-edited with Ben Burbridge). Her next book, out 2020, is a commissioned history of the British Council’s use of art in cultural relations since 1935.

Jamie Callison (Nord University)

'Silent Protest: Ditchling and the Rhythms of the Modern Retreat Movement'


The twentieth century saw the growth of a broad range of retreat movements. This paper looks at two examples from the Christian churches: the retreats developed by the Society for the Promotion of Retreats (Anglican) and the Catholic Worker (Roman Catholic), and situates them within the tradition of self-critique that characterises modernity, arguing that there are distinctly modern rhythms to these forms of retreat that differentiate them from nostalgic or therapeutic attempts to turn away from the modern. The paper goes on to argue that the significance of this protest shades or colours the way in which religion is experienced by retreat goers; in other words, that a particular form of modern religious experience is shaped by protest. Finally, the paper explains how this history of retreat helps us understand the religious and social-economic dimensions of Eric Gill and David Jones’s artistic community at Ditchling – a community that has been described as exemplary of both nostalgic and avant-garde impulses.

Jamie Callison is Associate Professor of British and American Literature at Nord University, Norway. His articles on T.S. Eliot, David Jones and twentieth-century religious culture have appeared in ELH, Literature and Theology and Modernist Cultures. He has recently published a co-edited (with Thomas Goldpaugh) critical edition of a previously unpublished book-length poem by David Jones entitled The Grail Mass (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). His monograph Modernism and Religion: Poetry and the Rise of Mysticism is under contract with Edinburgh University Press.

Aren Roukema (Birkbeck, University of London)

'Christian Occultism: Charles Williams and the Erosion of Heresy'


 Modern occultism has frequently been defined in opposition to Christianity. Christians, reflecting longstanding polemics against esoteric knowledge as dangerous or even demonic, have continued to view a range of magical traditions as heretical; conversely, leading occultists have reversed this polarisation, presenting their ideas and practices as a dramatic rebuke of Christian orthodoxy. Scholarly attempts to demarcate modern occultism from pre-nineteenth-century forms of esoteric practice and belief have often focused on this perceived opposition. Overall, however, the web of interaction between modern occultism and Christianity was much more complex; many practitioners of both sought not to emphasise deviance but to erode cultural and intellectual boundaries constructed by notions of heresy. This paper explores several representative attempts at such erosion between 1850 and 1950, building from the indicative example of Charles Williams (1886–1945), English poet, playwright, novelist, and theologian. Though Williams was a dedicated Anglican and prioritised Christian doctrine, his preference for pluralism and syncretism led to an interest in occultism that exemplifies a counter-narrative to the rhetorics of exclusion usually assumed by scholars of esotericism and Christianity. Friends described him as steeped in magical knowledge; he read widely from esoteric thinkers from Cornelius Agrippa to the contemporary occultist William Westcott; he owned at least two Tarot decks; and he frequently deployed Kabbalah’s complex set of imagery as a symbolic hermeneutic with which to transcribe and explore his ideas and experiences. From 1917 to 1927 he was heavily involved with Arthur Edward Waite’s occult Rosicrucian order, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, an offshoot of the famous magical society, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Williams thus represents a common occultist desire to resolve contradictions between religious systems. Constrained by a perspective of occultism as deviant in relation to Christianity, biographers, critics, and historians have been unable to appreciate the extent to which Christian occultists like Williams worked for synthesis rather than conflict. This paper will argue that as often as esoteric thinkers and practitioners like Aleister Crowley accentuated deviance, others, from influential French magician Éliphas Lévi to British social reformer and leading occultist Anna Kingsford, emphasised a syncretism in which Christian phenomena remained central. This Christian occultism embraced the adaptive, innovative nature of esoteric knowledge while maintaining traditional Christian beliefs and practices, seeking to erode the very epistemological and metaphysical boundaries that made heresy and deviance possible.

Aren Roukema is completing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, with the help of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Recent publications include Esotericism and Narrative: The Occult Fiction of Charles Williams (Brill, 2018) and “Naturalists in Ghost Land: Victorian Occultism and Science Fiction,” in The Occult Imagination in Britain: 1875-1947 (Routledge, 2018). He is Editor of Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, and co-founder of the London Science Fiction Research Community.

Guy Stevenson (Goldsmiths, University of London)

'Perils of Expansion: Aldous Huxley, William Burroughs and the limits of the counterculture'


Halfway through his novel Point Counterpoint, Aldous Huxley has his author-alter ego Philip thinking back wryly to a time when ‘I tried to persuade myself that reality did not exist’. Such self-awareness was always going to mark Huxley out from the reams of other writers, artists, musicians and philosophers who experimented with the effects of hallucinogens in the 1960s. It was the quality that stopped his Blake-inspired study on LSD, The Doors of Perception, from descending into mystical reverence or naïve grandstanding – and which makes it still worth reading where so much else from that genre categorically is not. This paper will look at Huxley in the context of the Counterculture that adopted him, reading Doors alongside his essays from the same period to discuss what his cool and intellectually unimpressionable take on the expansion of consciousness reveal both in themselves and about a period that was otherwise defined by opposite qualities. Reading Huxley’s forays into new spiritual and psychological terrain next to those of other skeptical 60s experimenters – people like the Beat ­novelist William Burroughs and media theory guru Marshall McLuhan  – I‘ll consider a pessimistic counter narrative and force in a movement that was and is celebrated for its progressivism. In doing so, I’ll also explore connections between an early century modernist sensibility – which Huxley had been instrumental in shaping – and a post-1945 American milieu determined to repudiate that past.

Guy Stevenson is a lecturer in English and American literature at Goldsmiths and at Queen Mary colleges, the University of London. He recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Edinburgh University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, where he was researching a book about the politics of the 1950s and 60s literary school, the Beat Generation (due out through Palgrave MacMillan, 2020). Guy has published essays in The European Journal of English Studies along with chapters in anthologies about his two main Ph.D. subjects, Henry Miller and Ezra Pound, and is currently editing a special issue of the journal Textual Practice – on the subject of ‘Anti-Humanist Modernisms’. As a literary critic, he writes for The Times Literary Supplement, Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Review and others.

Leo Mellor (University of Cambridge)

'Mary Butts & Lynette Roberts: Believing in the Hidden Tides of Places'

This paper will consider two heterodox modernist writers, both were active in the interwar period and both were drawn to very specific landscapes as their subject matter. Lynette Roberts to the huge tidal estuaries around Llansteffan and Llanybri in West Wales, Mary Butts to the chalk downland of Dorset. Both Butts and Roberts created from these landscapes belief systems to underpin and inform their writings; these belief systems were pantheistic, energised, and non-systematic. Both of these writers, and their extensive belief systems, deserve closer and more sustained attention.

Leo Mellor is the Roma Gill Fellow in English and Director of Studies at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge. His book Reading the Ruins was published by Cambridge University Press. He recently gave the Plenary lecture on Dylan Thomas at the international conference in Swansea to celebrate his centenary. His research is focused on Anglo-Welsh writing, the fiction and poetry of the ‘long 1930s’ and the relationship between locale and literature.

Suzanne Hobson (Queen Mary, University of London)

 “Modernistic mysticism”: the Evolution of an Idea in Modernist Criticism from 1920 to the Present

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