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.