I listed to a podcast interview in which a couple of the questions were so good that in the response more than the answer was heard.
There was a brief silence from the interviewee. Then a summoning of energy, with a faint sense of bluster, but expressed in a way that felt intended to create a misdirection. It was as if, rather than a considered response, which is what they seemed they wanted to convey, actually they were pushing back.
It was the unmistakable sound of desperation.
Maybe there is a special variety of desperation in occultism, arising when someone wants to espouse a principle or idea, but they lack the genuine experience required to actually see things that way. It is this metaphysical desperation – a wish for a truth that experience has failed to provide – which is my focus here. Of course, a material solution is often the best response to desperation of other kinds.
So much of therapy is being with the client’s need for things to be otherwise, and so much of magick is about accepting in ourselves this same wish for things to be other than what they are. Desperation is the mother of both therapy and magick. No one comes to either when satisfied with the conditions of existence. Yet neither therapy nor magick necessarily changes those conditions.
After all my years of magickal practice, this is how I describe the way things are:
God does not exist.
Spirits do not exist.
There is no continuation of consciousness after death.
Magick does not work.
Given the subject of this blog, this might sound surprising, but the secular materialist and I inhabit the very same world and she is perfectly intelligent, so I do not question her description. After all, she has plenty of evidence.
The magician deviates in the understanding of this shared reality. The difference is evoked perfectly by William Blake:
I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it is hindrance and not action. “What!” it will be questioned, “when the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire, somewhat like a guinea?” Oh! no! no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host, crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!” I question not my corporeal eye, any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it. (Gilchrist 1863: ii)
For Blake, material reality is a view through a window. Both the window and the vista have materiality, but not the perspective from which we look, which is defined by a point in space rather than by what occupies that space. It is understandable why the window and the perspective might be confused with one another, but a key difference between them lies in how the perspective includes the window. Because from it we can see the window, the perspective is not limited or defined by the window – “I look through it, and not with it”, as Blake says.
God, spirits, the dead, and magick cannot be seen through the window because they truly are not there. They have no material reality, no existence whatsoever. But not only is the window a metaphor, so is the perspective: it is only analogous to a point from which a person looks; it is not literally that. As the window and the vista are to the physical senses and material reality, so the perspective through the window is to a non-sensory awareness that can take the physical senses as its object. We “look at” and “see” beyond our senses on this level of awareness, and by this means what has no material reality becomes apparent. We “see” it not with the physical senses but with our understanding.
The text of the Nineteenth Enochian Key, revealed to John Dee and Edward Kelley in 1584 by the angel Nalvage, laments the divided, multiplicitous, and cruel nature of material reality. It is a hymn of total desperation, but it ends with an exhortation for delivery from confusion through understanding:
[T]he Earth let her be gouerned by her parts and let there be diuision in her, that the glory of hir may be allwayes drunken and vexed in it self […] One while let her be known and an other while a stranger: bycause she is the bed of a Harlot, and the dwelling place of Him that is Faln. […] Open the Mysteries of your Creation: and make vs partakers of Vndefyled Knowledg. (Maa-kheru 2020)
The knowledge is “undefiled” because it does not come through the senses and does not pertain to material reality. To know material reality is inevitably a struggle with confusion and division, entailing (not least) a brutal but methodologically necessary separation between the knower and the known. What Blake and Nalvage are pointing to is a non-sensory form of knowing that instead of coming by the laborious and problematic route of the senses presents itself directly to the understanding.
It offers an end to the desperation of wishing things were otherwise. Material reality is precisely as the materialists describe it: devoid of God and spirit; constrained by causality and the limitations of organic matter. It is idiocy both to assert that spirit could be perceptible or measurable in matter (because this is impossible) and to seek to prove that spirit is nowhere to be found (because this is obvious).
Do I experience desperation?
Yes. All of the time.
It functions as a precious signal when we are seeking a false solution.
Gilchrist, Alexander (1863). The Life of William Blake. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2012.
I came downstairs and saw that the kite machine had finished. It had taken care of all the troublesome work of launching the kite high above the garden of my parents’ old house. Outside, it was a clear, summer day. The kite was already so high that it could not be seen. Its cord stretched up into the air, vanishing from sight, but I knew both kite and cord shared the same shade of pale blue.
Thanks to the launching machine, what remained was purely the pleasure of taking hold of the cord. I felt the tug of the kite from the other end, like something alive. This was the thrill of it: that direct connection with something vastly remote, invisible yet present.
Gazing up, a series of high-tension wires were dangerously close to the cord. I felt a surge of adrenaline, but realised the cord was already brushing against them. The danger I feared was not real. There was nothing to worry about. I could relax completely into my connection with the high and distant kite.
It felt like a good, healing dream. When I told it to my therapist he looked surprised and disclosed a synchronicity: he was running a men’s group and they were reading together a short story by Somerset Maugham, “The Kite” (1946).
It is the self-proclaimed “odd” tale of Herbert Sunbury, only son of a lower middle-class family, in his early twenties and still living at home with his overly attached mother and somewhat passive father. The story is told to the narrator by a friend, a prison visitor. Herbert is one of the friend’s cases and has been imprisoned for refusing to pay his wife alimony after abandoning her. When the friend asks Herbert why he wants to make his wife suffer he states that he can never forgive her – because she smashed his kite.
We are told how Herbert became obsessed with kites at the age of seven, and every weekend when the weather was favourable he and his parents would join other kite enthusiasts on the common, a tradition maintained ever since, until the day arrives when he invites a girl home to tea named Betty. Herbert’s jealous mother is so insulting towards his new girlfriend that he rebels by asking Betty to marry him. His parents boycott the ceremony, but Betty and Herbert set up home together as newlyweds. Betty cannot understand, however, why a grown man is still so fixated on flying a kite with his parents every weekend.
In a jealous rage, Herbert’s mother insists that the kite she gave him for Christmas all those years ago was never really his. Then, with promises of a huge box-kite that can fly at a height of two miles, his parents entice him back to the common at weekends. At this, Betty’s patience snaps. She throws him out. To his mother’s delight Herbert moves back home where, he realises, he was more comfortable anyway. Driven to desperation by Herbert’s refusal to return or to meet his financial responsibilities, Betty breaks into the coal-shed and smashes up the new box-kite with a hatchet. At least, that is what we are led to assume she did, yet none of the characters sees her do it, and her confession is delivered to Herbert through his father.
The story ends with Herbert in prison, having ignored court orders to support his wife, and relishing the suffering he has inflicted on her when the piano and all their furniture is repossessed.
Perhaps the biggest oddity of the story is its self-conscious framing at beginning and end with disclaimers by the narrator of any understanding of the meaning of Herbert’s behaviour. The narrator states that he knows little of human psychology; he evokes Freud but promptly dismisses him. Maybe this is Maugham’s way of signalling that the obvious Freudian overtones were not primarily what he was aiming at, and so perhaps the narrator’s own interpretation falls nearer the mark:
You see, I don’t know a thing about flying a kite. Perhaps it gives him [Herbert] a sense of power as he watches it soaring towards the clouds and of mastery over the elements as he seems to bend the winds of heaven to his will. It may be that in some queer way he identifies himself with the kite flying so free and so high above him, and it’s as it were an escape from the monotony of life. It may be that in some dim, confused way it represents an ideal of freedom and adventure. And you know, when a man once gets bitten with the virus of the ideal not all the King’s doctors and not all the King’s surgeons can rid him of it. But all this is very fanciful and I dare say it’s just stuff and nonsense. (Maugham 1946)
I am not convinced it is freedom that is the issue for Herbert, who enjoys the confines of his family home, nor precisely the pleasure of domination and control. At his most desperate, he expresses violent intentions towards Betty yet never follows through; his most aggressive act is to throw her onto the bed so he can leave their home, after she kicks him.
What the kite seems to represent in Maugham’s story is Herbert’s desire. A kite soars high whilst never escaping the cord that binds it. Likewise, we feel the pull of desire, but can never break free from it. Our needs and wants might be satisfied, but our desires never are. We desire a person or an object, but having that object or being with that person does not end the desire for them. Desire extends outwardly to things, at the same time presenting itself intensely and close within. Desire is an inmixing of self and other, which is the reason that working with it is so effective for accessing non-dual states of awareness, as in bhakti yoga, tantra, and sex magick. Psychologically desire reveals more about ourselves than whatever it happens to be manifestly directed towards.
In the story, whoever has the kite has Herbert’s desire; wherever the kite goes, Herbert comes attached. “If you marry that woman you’re not going to fly my kite”, threatens his mother. “I never gave it you, I bought it out of the housekeeping money, and it’s mine, see” (Maugham 1946). In her refusal to relinquish the kite it becomes apparent that Herbert’s desire is his mother’s desire. The fundamental gift a mother bestows the child that emerges from her body is independent existence, yet Herbert’s mother deprives him of this by refusing him a desire of his own.
Betty is not able to break through to him. By belittling his passion for kites she alienates herself from his desire. But that is no fault on her part; as an adult woman she might prefer to be the object of his desire rather than the custodian of it. A film version of the story in 1948 could not resist appending a happy ending: the narrator’s friend arranges for Herbert to be let out early from prison, and for Betty to join him on the common where they fly the kite together (Crabtree 1948). In Maugham’s original text, however, Herbert does not recover from Betty’s destruction of the kite. By taking a hatchet to it, she destroys his capacity for desire altogether. At the story’s conclusion he is stranded in prison, consumed with hatred, and cut-off from the world. The kite as a symbol conveys how we need desire to find a grounding in reality at the same time as it lifts us out of ourselves.
In my dream, I was back at my parents’ old house, but they were not there. I was inhabiting a structure they had provided, whereas for Herbert his actual parents are all too present. And if it is the act of control and mastery that is important for Herbert, in the dream all of this is taken care of automatically by the machine. “Getting it up” is not the dream’s focus; it is about the sensation of connection.
On the day of the dream I had listened to Conner Habib’s podcast on the Archangel Michael (Habib 2020) and been very moved by this, and struck by Habib’s remarks on the traditional image of Michael, in which he is shown killing a devil with a spear or sword:
[…t]he sword and the dragon and Michael’s hand are always connected. In a very real way, the sword becomes a conduit or a bridge between Michael and that other being, the dragon. […] The difficulty with destroying the dragon is that you must connect yourself to it […] We don’t evolve past the dragon, we in-volve him and our hearts must be ready for him. (Habib 2020: 14’53”)
Habib is reading Michael from an anthroposophical perspective. For Habib, as for Steiner, the devil slain by Michael is the reductive materialism that characterises our era. This devil is therefore an aspect of a greater cosmic being, Ahriman. For Steiner, human beings walk a path between the deviating influences of Ahriman and Lucifer (Steiner 2009). The former manifests as a downward, earthwards pull towards materialism, literalism, nationalism; Lucifer takes the form of the opposite skyward drift into intellectualisation, abstraction, utopianism. Whereas Herbert struggles to get his kite off the ground, in the dream mine has completely vanished into the wide blue yonder.
Yet the sense of connection is paramount: the kite is grounded to my body through the exhilarating sensation of its pull. Too much identification with the kite itself would lead, as Maugham’s narrator supposes, to an impulse towards “escape” – a dynamic that finds expression in the archetype of the puer aeternus and the cautionary myth of Icarus. But the dream maybe points in a different direction. As Michael demonstrates how to defeat the enemy by exercising will in the correct way and avoiding the temptation to separate from what we need to engage with, perhaps the dream indicates how to put our desire in order.
Allowing others control of our desire provides a promise of satisfaction, just as Herbert fools himself that his best option is to live at home, but this is to confuse desire with his wants and needs. As will is a conduit between self and world, so desire mediates between the self and the ideal. When desire is extinguished then so is our connection to what we hold to be beautiful, good, and true. Herbert’s mother prevents his desire from ever getting off the ground because she wants him, rather than what is best for him. She entraps him in her own confusion. The kite-flying encapsulates both Herbert’s predicament with his mother and his wish to escape.
As Michael’s sword shows how to destroy the devil by connecting with the devil, maybe the kite demonstrates the converse: how to communicate with the highest. Simply being human guarantees a possibility of realising this: we do not have to “do” anything, desire is a given. We automatically tend towards the good, the beautiful, and the true. Obstacles – those supposedly deadly high tension wires – are false beliefs, like Herbert’s false belief that mum fulfils his desire rather than Betty, just because mum meets his needs; and the narrator’s false belief that human nature is beyond his understanding, whereas everything he says about Herbert is right on point. We go wrong only if, in the grip of false belief, we fail to rise at all or completely lose our connection with the earth.
Crabtree, Arthur, director (1948). Quartet. J. Arthur Rank Productions.
Form is emptiness; emptiness is evolving. (Oelke 2019).
This quotation from Zen teacher David Loy has featured in discussions of “Metadharma”, a new approach to Buddhist practice being developed by the influential Buddhist Geeks sangha. Vincent Horn, its founder, defines Metadharma as “any approach to dharma practice that responds in some intentional way to the meta crisis that we face as a species” (Buddhist Geeks 2019a: 0’46”).
Metadharma holds that Buddhism needs a revamp because it cannot respond to present crises with the level of social engagement demanded. Buddhism’s original emphasis was upon realising emptiness as a means to escape suffering. “Now, indeed, you often abide in the abiding of a great man”, the Buddha congratulated Sariputta. “For this is the abiding of a great man, namely, voidness [emptiness]” (Bodhi 1995: 1143). Loy’s comment represents a different approach, alluding to the Heart Sutra as a reminder that emptiness and form are not separate, so if form is evolving then emptiness is evolving too. Therefore, to abide in emptiness is unfeasible as a response to the challenges posed by the world of form.
Yet this is not what we encounter in personal experience. After years spent investigating the ubiquity in everyday experience of the three characteristics (impermanence, suffering, and no-self), emptiness was realised when something else became apparent that never wanes, does not suck, is nothing at all, and yet is available to awareness. Part of the experience of emptiness is the direct intuition that it is indeed the same for all, and throughout all time.
Ken Wilber argues, however, that what we cannot see is precisely what points to the future direction of Buddhism (Buddhist Geeks 2019b, 2019c). Wilber draws a distinction between “waking up” and “growing up”. There is the realisation of emptiness, but there is also what we make of that realisation and how we integrate it into our lives and practice. Describing it as “the abiding of a great man” when actually it is the realisation of something that was always the case, and is available to every single person on earth, is a case in point. What we make of emptiness is determined by our stage of development with regard to many factors, such as education, culture, ethics, and our level of cognitive and emotional intelligence. All of these shape our experience, but none of them are visible from within it. Wilber makes the case for a new phase (a “fourth turning”) of Buddhism that incorporates practices for “growing up” and “cleaning up” alongside the traditional “waking up”.
Spiritual traditions grow and develop but they also fade and decay, so how do we tell if a new phase is truly a fresh development and not the corruption of something already on its way out? Evolution is a harrowing process. Living things evolve not because they are seeking to better themselves, but to survive. Every so-called “new phase” is also just a means to fend off death for a little while longer.
Emptiness is eternal, but living species die, and evolution is the process that kills as well as engenders them. To say “emptiness is evolving” suggests that emptiness is subject to evolution, but it is emptiness that allows evolution, because without emptiness there is no dependent origination, which means things could never manifest as things nor give rise to others if they were not in themselves inherently empty.
Perhaps Loy goes wrong with his unstated assumption that form is evolving. Certainly, living things evolve, but living things are not the totality of form. Neither subatomic particles, planets nor black holes seem to reproduce by natural selection. It is presently uncertain whether the universe will ultimately die a slow heat death or somehow recycle itself – the “Big Freeze” or the “Big Crunch” (NASA 2015). Living things must adapt to their material conditions to survive, but life and its environment are both aspects of form. Rather than evolving, form might instead be simply on a long hiding into nothingness, or locked in an eternally repeating cycle.
Presently, like many institutions, western Buddhism is under pressure and maybe clutching for a means to survive. Buddhist Geeks has espoused the postmodern view that all expressions of truth are partial, and the distrust of grand narratives that this entails. But when a tradition is under strain, it is difficult to imagine a response is not also an attempt to make one’s own narrative less partial. Metadharma, by including practices for personal development and social engagement, seems to be taking on functions more traditionally associated with the education system or a political movement. Although this may attract more outwardly diverse practitioners, it will likely generate greater homogenisation in terms of liberal values and politics. Might this not end up contributing to the current trend towards polarisation?
My route into spirituality and the occult was largely through the tradition of chaos magick. In case it seems I am smugly criticising western Buddhism, chaos magick (and perhaps the occult in general) is in an even worse mess. Because of its emphasis on technique and lack of a coherent worldview, chaos magick is not even a spiritual tradition as such. It just so happened I had the good fortune to be guided towards the discovery that its techniques can lead to genuine spiritual experiences, when coupled with an intention to produce these.
In more recent years the founder of chaos magick has adopted increasingly nationalist views (Carroll 2020); in Russia, Alexander Dugin has used the techniques and iconography of chaos magick in the service of far-right Eurasian nationalism; and similarly, in the USA, Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer have employed meme magick among the alt-right to help Donald Trump into power (Lachman 2018). Given all this turmoil and confusion, I was not surprised to hear the following in a recent episode of the Weird Studies podcast:
All those chaos magicians who think that […] magick should be available to anyone […] Magick spells are guns […] You’ve read “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”: chaos will ensue […] So I guess that’s what chaos magicians want. (Ford & Martel 2020: 1hr22’25”)
The dilemmas of western Buddhism are mild in comparison with the challenges facing chaos magick: appropriation by the far right, and a not unwarranted association with unethical behaviour. Yet there seems to have been no public debate within chaos magick regarding an appropriate response. So far, the problem has been ignored, which maybe chimes with the core values of the movement: magick as simply a set of techniques, available to anyone for any purpose they choose.
Chaos magick and western Buddhism have provided me with major points of reference regarding my spiritual practice and ethical values. But as the war of all against all hots up, both traditions are under pressure, perhaps about to fall apart at the seams. Chaos magick has been invaded by the right; western Buddhism seems set on transforming into a bastion of liberalism. But the changes to both seem to be detracting from the practices and values that attracted me in the first place.
Emptiness is not evolving; form is that which, because it is emptiness, can pass away and die. Chaos magick continues to provide wonderful techniques for creating form from intention, and Buddhism has always provided useful instruction on how (in many senses) to die well. What formerly was provided from the outside by these traditions, in the future we may need to embody for ourselves from within.
Bodhi, Bhikkhu, translator (1995). Pindapataparisuddhi sutta: the purification of almsfood [MN 151]. In: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
Two texts concerning encounters with non-terrestrial entities: the first, Anthony Peake’s The Hidden Universe: an Investigation into Non-Human Intelligences (2019); the second, the film series Hellier (Pfeiffer 2019). Both were created at around the same time, probably unknown to each other, but each confronts a similar mystery of non-human entities which, as Peake puts it:
all have one thing in common: they originally existed in the heavens, came down to earth, were defeated or banished by a controlling power, and ended up underground to occasionally enter this world through portals such as caves and sink-holes (Peake 2019: 44)
Both texts are initiated by personal encounters: in Peake’s case, his mother’s experience of something strange in the sky, followed by a bedroom encounter with an alien grey, even though such things were outside his mother’s cultural frame of reference; in the case of Hellier, unsolicited emails describing incursions of goblin-like greys upon a household in Kentucky.
In each instance, the ensuing narrative leads the protagonists and the reader or viewer into “high strangeness”: happenings so bizarre they transcend the usual categories of weirdness, so that phenomena such as ghosts, extraterrestrials, and psi are jumbled together in an inseparable melee of oddness.
What distinguishes these texts, however, is the trajectory the respective investigations take. Peake begins with shamanism, myth and magick, formulating an argument that reaches its conclusions in what is supposedly science. The Hellier team begin with a supposedly scientific, investigative approach, but are drawn ineluctably towards a conclusion in occultism. Along the way, both are confronted with questions about the nature of reality.
The Hellier team commence in that dire confusion typical of paranormal investigation teams. The first season is almost unbearable to watch, because of the faulty reasoning, their inability to distinguish between knowledge and experience. On their first visit to the town of Hellier they find it odd that so many people approach them with stories of strange happenings. When they return, months later, hardly anyone comes forward, yet this is taken as odd too. Is it really so improbable to have different experiences in the same place at different times?
To communicate with non-human entities the team employs “The Estes Method”, which involves relaying output from a ghostbox through powerful noise-cancelling headphones to a blindfolded human operator who then speaks out loud the messages he or she receives. Questions are addressed to the entity by the other participants and whatever is spoken by the human operator is taken as the response. Whereas typical ghostbox communications are vulnerable to different participants hearing different messages, the Estes Method limits the number of interpretations to one and creates a sense of dialoguing with an entity in real time.
This is taken a step further in a subsequent episode where the same set-up is employed with another member of the team donning a “god helmet” and engaging with the ghostbox operator in dialogue. A god helmet is an apparatus that stimulates the temporal lobes of the wearer with low intensity magnetic fields. In this sequence the helmeted team member, possibly in an altered state, reports multisensory communications from an extraterrestrial entity, which seem to correspond with the verbal utterances being relayed from the ghostbox operator.
But even as the paraphernalia of modern ghostbusting proliferates, the Hellier crew are converging on what amounts to an ancient method of spirit communication: spirit possession. They could have dispensed with all the technology and gained the same experience simply by calling out to the supposed entities, entering a trance state, and allowing whatever happens to happen. Indeed, the climactic scenes of Hellier amount to this: the team decide the phenomenon relates to the god Pan, so they perform a ritual in the caves to open a portal for Pan to re-enter the world. Their transformation from paranormal investigators into magicians seems complete.
The narrative strands of Hellier are manifold, and I will not enter into them here, but at the very end of the second series, after the somewhat anticlimactic results of the Pan ritual, further pointers seem offered by the phenomenon, two of them being: (1) a passage from The Book of the Law obtained by gematria: “the man and the name of thy house 418 the end of the hiding” (Crowley 1976: 38 [II: 78-9]); and (2) Crowley’s Star Sapphire ritual (1992: 36), obtained by gematria and through some striking synchronicities.
418 is the gematric value of Abrahadabra, which for Crowley means “The Great Work accomplished” (Crowley 2020: point iii). The number therefore symbolises enlightenment, awakening – although I suspect the Hellier crew might be thinking it is the street number of the house where Indrid Cold lives. (Long story…) The Star Sapphire ritual, meanwhile, is a sex-magickal invocation of the non-dual consciousness that forms the basis of spiritual awakening.
The Hellier team discuss the idea of performing the ritual, but no comment is made on its sexual aspect. Famously, in the sixteenth century John Dee and Edward Kelley made contact with angels and were instructed by them to arrange sexual intercourse on the same night with each other’s wives. The Hellier team are perhaps confronting discarnate beings with a similar intention of pointing them towards ritual sex as a means of gnosis. Jason Louv (regarding the case of Dee and Kelley) offers a rationale for this:
We know that sex and particularly possessiveness issues around sex are really tightly wound into the human ego and issues of territory and dominance […] The point of all of that is reproduction […] You need functional ego boundaries to take and defend territory in which children can be raised […] When you deal with sexual deconditioning you’re really hitting at the root of the personality […] It makes sense from the angelic perspective: they are trying to crack the centre of the human personality, but what often happens with these things is that what spiritual beings think human beings can handle they often can’t. (Kaminsky 2018: 51’10”)
Engaging in non-habitual sexual activity, then, can be used as a method for challenging ego boundaries and thereby entering non-dual awareness. If there is a third season of Hellier I doubt that these considerations will be pursued, and I am not recommending that they should (for the same reasons that Louv touches upon) but I imagine the trajectory into ritual and magick will continue, as it becomes clearer that (because it is discarnate and therefore without a material basis) the phenomenon cannot be subjected to scientific investigation – not that the Hellier team were ever really doing that anyway.
Peake, however, does not regard the immateriality of the entities as an obstacle to contemporary science. He traces encounters with non-human entities, or “egregorials”, through shamanism, religious myth, legends of faeries and djinn, the magick of Dee and Crowley, psychical experiments, ufology, and entheogens. By this point he has collected a bunch of odd but recurring motifs: beings originally from the heavens that for reasons unknown have retreated to dark, subterranean caves; that appear in forms often similar to or associated with reptiles or snakes; and with whom entheogens or trance states seem to offer a means of communication. Their motivation and ontological status remain uncertain, but they reappear so often and in so many contexts that it is too simple to dismiss them as fiction. Yet if they do not have material existence, then where are they? Referring to quantum mechanics and theories suggesting that material reality is some kind of simulation, Peake concludes:
If the physical world is, in fact, created purely from non-physical digital information then the existence of non-human intelligences existing outside the program is not so far-fetched. Our Egregorials are simply sentient programs in the same way that we are sentient programs. They just exist on a different level. (Peake 2019: 206)
Peake’s trajectory sends him on a reformulation of reality to accommodate discarnate entities. However, does the idea of the physical world as a simulation make sense? If an aspect of reality leads us to conclude reality is not real, what we were expecting to find? Peake seems perturbed by the suggestion “that physical reality is not actually solid in any real sense” (Peake 2019: 191). For him, apparently, if reality has characteristics somewhat like a computer program or a hologram then it becomes suspect. What seems more likely, however, is that his assumptions are unrealistic. A notion of reality as not real is an idea inherently confused and false.
On the one hand we have Peake, trying to find the entities by using science to reformulate reality; and on the other the Hellier crew, attempting communication by using magick to alter their perceptions. What both might be missing is an invitation implicit in the encounter to radically alter their conception of self. In Peake’s case, if reality indeed lacks substance and is like a hologram, then what would be the nature of human existence within that reality? In the case of the Hellier team, if it is not material creatures that their investigations yield, but meaningful synchronicities, are they noticing what effect this is having upon themselves?
The nature and motivation of the entities is implicit in these questions. They are not material creatures but symbols. They come down from the heavens and live in the underworld because that is where we must go to find them. They communicate through dreams, drugs, rituals, and trance because changing our consciousness is what they do. Describing them as “symbols” takes away none of their reality. To approach a symbol is to fall under its meaning and be affected by it.
The association of the entities with reptiles or serpents is related by Peake to an ayahuasca vision of Michael Harner: “The dragon-like entities informed him that they were inside all forms of life, including humans, who are but the receptacles and servants of these creatures” (Peake 2019: 166). This is perhaps taking a living symbol too literally, although it is understandable, given that it was apparently Harner’s first ever ayahuasca ritual, and at the time he was an anthropologist studying the perplexingly alien culture of the Conibo people in Peru.
Compare the conclusions Harner draws from his visionary encounter with reptilian entities to that of Carl Jung in The Red Book:
The serpent is the earthly essence of man of which he is not conscious. […I]t is the mystery that flows to him from the nourishing earth-mother. […] The serpent has the weight of the earth in itself, but also its changeability and germination from which everything that becomes emerges. It is always the serpent that causes man to become enslaved now to one, now to the other principle, so that it becomes error. […] The way of life writhes like the serpent from right to left and from left to right […] Thus the serpent is an adversary and a symbol of enmity, but also a wise bridge that connects right and left through longing, much needed by our life. (Jung 2009: 180-1)
My suggestion here is that we are not the slaves of the serpent (as Harner supposed), but only potentially so. We become slaves to these entities if we follow them into the earth, taking them literally. Earth is materiality, but it is also the site of germination, potential and growth. The myths inform us that these reptilian entities originally came from the stars, but they have a trickster aspect and can ruin us by leading us into confusion. Whereas Peake aims for the stars and tries to trace them back to their original home, the Hellier crew are led into the caves. However, as Jung suggests, we avoid confusion by recognising them as the living symbols that they are, enacting transformation upon us. Where they lead to wisdom it is because we have recognised that how they appear illuminates the nature of the reality that enables this.
Crowley, Aleister (1976). The Book of the Law. York Beach, ME: Weiser.
He wrote two extraordinarily atmospheric novels (2000, 2001) and a collection of intense short stories (1997). I miss the strange lucidity and skewed observations in his writing, which trap and bind the reader in the weight of bodily experience, yet somehow at the same time offer something ethereal and transcendent.
There was a passage about how catching a cold changed the perceptions of the narrator, which made a sniffle seem like tripping on LSD. In another passage the narrator leans from the window of a tower block and hears the rain; just the non-sound of water falling through air on its way to the ground. I have not looked up these passages. What the text actually says is not my point.
I read Kenworthy at the same time I had started to wonder about magick. I could not let go of experiences as a teenager, messing with the Ouija board. It felt fake to go about pretending things like that did not happen. I wondered if magick were a way to cause those things, rather than just waiting and hoping for the miraculous. Kenworthy seemed to hint there was a means to see the world as he presented it. I suspected this method was occultism. It felt to me as if he wrote from the perspective of someone who had been to the woods and conducted questionable experiments, had performed ill-judged rituals with unpleasant consequences; that all his stories were attempts at coming to terms with this.
But I do not know this. I know next to nothing about him. I waited for new novels from him that never came. Following his career online, he was moving into directing films. Cinema’s gain was literature’s loss, as far as I was concerned.
During the early 90s I was haunting the small press scene. I printed out stories on A4 sheets and posted them to editors. A free copy of a magazine was usually the only enticement. My stories returned rapidly in the self-addressed envelopes I had supplied. Kenworthy had just about outgrown this scene, but there was a goth magazine named Occular that had a story of mine in the same issue as one by him. This was my highlight. I slogged on for a few more years. I gave up because the effort was incommensurate with the returns. That, and a lack of talent.
Kenworthy had emigrated to Australia and made a successful career directing music videos. He wrote bestselling manuals on filmmaking. And then I remember an announcement that he was giving up making films. No reason was given, but my fantasy plugged the gap: spousal pressure to take up steadier work; a damaged occultist saved and constrained by his commitments. But I had no evidence whatsoever.
He made a feature film (2009) that I struggled for years to find. Strangely, today, at last, I found a copy for purchase. It has been downloading whilst I have written this. So perhaps Kenworthy was never actually missing at all; the obscurity was my creation. Missing something reveals little about what is supposedly absent, but much more perhaps of he in whom the feelings arise.
I have missed writing in public on things I am passionate about. I am thinking about Kenworthy now, perhaps, because I have been absent from myself.
On the Weird Studies podcast I was surprised to hear mention of “two English occultists, Duncan Barford and Alan Chapman, who in the 2000s had a really great blog called The Baptist’s Head and then […] they basically disappeared off the face of the earth” (Ford & Martel 2018).
It is nice to be missed, but we had not disappeared. Alan was building a reputation as a spiritual teacher and developing the teachings that would become Magia. And I was still writing, although anonymously at times, whilst training and building a career in counselling. Anyone who looked would have found us, but what were they looking for? I had been looking for a writer and occultist in someone who was apparently no longer either; no wonder Kenworthy had seemed hard to find. But I had withdrawn also from public view in those fields. Maybe I was missing through someone else what I had turned away from in myself.
Things seem different now. Alan and I are in communication again. Synchronicities are mounting. A feeling is building that what seemed missing was actually there all along.
Ford, Phil & J.F. Martel (2018) Weird studies episode 36 – on hyperstition. https://tinyurl.com/yyzrg8zg (weirdstudies.com). Accessed September 2020.
Kenworthy, Christopher (1996). Will You Hold Me? London: The Do-Not Press
Kenworthy, Christopher (2000). The Winter Inside. London: Serpent’s Tail.
Kenworthy, Christopher (2001). The Quality of Light. London: Serpent’s Tail.
Kenworthy, Christopher, director (2009). The Sculptor [aka The Sculptor’s Ritual].
“[M]ight it not be the case”, wonders Federico Campagna, concerning these turbulent times, “that imagination, action or even just life or happiness seem impossible, because they are impossible, at least within the present reality-settings?” (Campagna 2018: 2)
In Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality (2018) he takes the bold and unusually optimistic approach of fiddling with those settings in order to configure a new reality that he names “Magic”. He contrasts this with “Technic”, which is the defining paradigm of modernity, under which “nothing legitimately exists otherwise than as an instrument, ready to be employed in the limitless production of other instruments, ad infinitum” (Campagna 2018: 30).
Campagna adopts a Neoplatonist metaphysic, defining both Technic and Magic in terms of a series of contrasting hierarchical hypostases. It is an interesting approach, but for me it does not hold. In Neoplatonism, the hypostases (The One, Intellect, Soul, etc.) are realities in themselves; it is not simply the arrangement of ideas in a hierarchy that produces reality. Consequently, it is not possible to “swap out” hypostases or invent new ones, which is precisely what Campagna does.
His assumption is that reality is conceptual in nature (rather than experiential), definable by the relationship presumed to obtain between existence and essence during a specific historical period (Campagna 2018: 110). To posit the divine as a reality in itself would be untenable within this framework: “such absolute monism wouldn’t allow for any reality as such to take place” (Campagna 2018: 125). It is odd how some of Campagna’s underlying assumptions seem to partake of Technic, our nemesis, for whom all things “are nothing more than the simultaneous activation of positions in different series” (Campagna 2018: 70).
For all the difficulties I had with this text I found much of value in it, including Campagna’s formulation of what surfaces at the point where Technic hits its limit: the unsurmountable fact that for human beings it is unbearable to be dehumanised.
Technic’s response to this protest is to re-frame it:
The current epidemic of mental illness is not presented as a symptom of Technic’s own limit […] but rather as a problem of life itself that Technic has to tackle and fix through socio-medical means […] Technic denies the existence of anything that would authentically escape it, defining it instead as a possibility that hasn’t been fulfilled. For example, life’s mortality is included within Technic’s cosmology as an as-yet-unreached (but by no means unreachable) state of immortality […] (Campagna 2018: 93)
Technic regards it as a sorry failure of personal resilience if we buckle beneath the misery of the dominant materialist paradigm, in which consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon of physical processes, creating an illusion of meaning in a fundamentally meaningless universe – even though no one truly inhabits this paradigm, precisely because it is inhuman.
For Technic to fix life, firstly it must show life to be broken, so life without Technic must be represented as vulnerable, as “not safe”. However, as Campagna points out, “safety is a negative concept: one is safe from a threat, not in itself” (Campagna 2018: 229). To make us feel safe, Technic must first persuade us that life is a threat. In this context the notion of “harm” is used to distract us from life itself.
I encountered an small example of how this plays out in practice as a member of a paranormal investigation organisation, whose major contribution is its Code of Ethics for paranormal investigators (ASSAP 2011). It seemed to me that during the period of my membership those running the organisation were chiefly interested in advancing a sceptical agenda. The Code of Ethics seemed to be surreptitiously serving this. Two examples: “If a client has suffered a relevant bereavement within six months of making contact the case should not be accepted”, and: “We recommend you do not come into contact with minors (under the age of 18)”.
I am not arguing that these guidelines do not reflect valid and important ethical concerns but highlighting how following them will tend to preclude certain types of situations likely to present us with phenomena that could be labelled “paranormal”. The guidelines might even seem intended to prevent the very types of experience that they supposedly regulate the investigation of. If Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair had followed this code, for instance, we would never have heard of the Enfield Poltergeist (Playfair 2011) or have the wealth of important data that was compiled from that case.
There is no doubt that recently bereaved people and emotionally disturbed teenagers are vulnerable to harm if already distressing experiences are stoked and amplified by the involvement of paranormal investigators. The most ethical course (in the sense of taking the minimal risk of doing harm) is often not to involve oneself at all. Yet death and distress are an ever-present aspect of life, and for all the obvious benefits of minimising these, at the same time something is being overlooked in the decision not to engage with them. Certainly, what is being avoided is probably unpleasant, yet it remains a part of life, regardless of our wishes it were not so.
Technic, then, can have ulterior motives for its concern with “harm”, but Campagna’s analysis suggests that Magic also has some difficult questions to answer, because if Magic does not shy from the darker side of life, but gravitates toward it with an attitude that does not award total priority to the minimisation of harm, then on what ethical grounds can Magic rest?
An illustration of the tendency in Magic to disregard harm is presented in Hellier, a nonfiction web series that follows a group of paranormal researchers whose investigations draw them progressively into the occult. It is vital viewing for insights into the dynamics of how the paranormal and the occult are currently formulated.
To investigate whether alien abduction experiences possess a non-physical dimension, the group conduct an experiment to implant a memory of abduction into a subject by hypnosis. Despite the subject remarking more than once that he does not feel safe, the hypnotist continues with the session. The result of the experiment is that the subject – who formerly did not believe in alien abductions – “has developed an intense fear of extra-terrestrials and absolutely believes that they exist” (Pfeiffer 2019: 34’38”).
The hypnotist, Lonnie Scott, has stated that he included safety protocols into the session which were not shown onscreen (Scott 2020: 8’49”), but these have evidently not protected the subject from the phobia that was the result of the experiment. None of the group comments on the obvious ethical problems in this sequence, but their interviewee, author and occultist Allen Greenfield, when asked what he thinks the experiment proves, suggests: “that these experiences can be induced by a […] sinister, insensitive, cruel human being into another” (Pfeiffer 2019: 35’25”).
It is not concern with harm but with salvation that Campagna suggests is the ethical basis for Magic. Whereas Technic aims at safety, keeping at bay the darker aspects of the world, in contrast Magic aims at “helping the inhabitants of its world to exist at once inside and outside of the world” (Campagna 2018: 230). Magic offers a way through and out, because: “salvation refers to the rescue of an entity from its exclusive identification with its linguistic dimension, and to its acceptance also of the living, ineffable dimension of its existence” (Campagna 2018: 230). Campagna notes that from the perspective of Magic “everything […] is always-already saved” (Campagna 2018: 231), but what perhaps he does not emphasise is the struggle and trauma usually entailed in realising this. Magic does not shy from the darker side of life, which Technic construes as a threat to safety, yet on its way toward its goal Magic will likely pass through what Technic construes as harm.
Clearly, harm was done to the subject of the hypnotic experiment in Hellier, and the route to salvation from there might seem difficult and less than obvious. If it could be realised from that experience of harm how memories are not the record of our experience, and how even the deepest fears can arise from something that never actually happened, then maybe this could lead to the domain promised by Magic, where we “exist at once inside and outside of the world” (Campagna 2018: 231). But how do we find our way to this place if we were not looking for it and had no inkling that it existed?
Because Magic cannot promise freedom from harm it should never be recommended by one person to another, and neither should a person be initiated into Magic without it being their choice. Yet this does not mean that Magic is necessarily harmful or by definition unethical. Ethical action from the perspective of Magic may not be about the minimisation of harm, but it is about the maximisation of opportunities for salvation.