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Community / Public space

On being touched, but not obliged, in Northfield, Minnesota

Since 1998, Phil Smith has been developing the concept of ‘mythogeography’, “a paranoid, exploratory, detective-like approach to space and place”. He published his first book on the subject in 2010.

In this extract from his new book, “Rethinking Mythogeography in Northfield, Minnesota”, he writes about “being touched, but not obliged”.

On my first morning in Northfield, exploring on Division Street, I met Helen on the doorstep of the Prayer Room. She caught me obsessively studying the way the step outside its front door had begun to bubble ectoplasmically; the sun or the frost had disrupted its ceramic surface and a new pattern of unhuman forces was brazen.

The praying folk began to descend to the street from their upper room. Deploying my best ‘Khlestakhovian Inscrutability’ – a tactic I use in the street, offering a minimum of response (while remaining polite) so that others can fill the quiet with their own ideas and spaces – I engaged gently in a series of conversations (with one precant it was something about comparing the watches of our dead fathers that we were both wearing) until I was asked in to see the Prayer Room.

I was asked if hands could be laid upon me for a prayer. Although I was clear that I was not a believer, I was pleased to accept the offer. Pleased because I felt all these strangers’ hands on me, without aggression; my eyes were open and I saw the shelves of peculiar videos and books, and I heard the words of the prayer as the leader sought in curling sentences to somehow address the immediate future of someone he knew nothing about.

I was re-imagined in prayer in ways that were fantastical for their ordinariness; so far from my intentions I felt wholly unharmed. Being turned into something like an erudite and caring octopus with a fan of praying tentacles, I was lifted up in the arms of a community within a community. I was 4,000 miles from home and on my first day in town I was held intimately by six strangers in an upstairs room.

Such encounters, when entered into mythogeographically, as part of one’s questing journey to understand and intervene in places that are strange or simply unfamiliar, leave one touched, sometimes deeply, yet unobliged. There is no surrender of one’s nomadic slipperiness, no surrender to the grand narratives that are all around.


Even in places where belief and worldview are strictly codified, the mythogeographical pilgrim presents such a benign ambiguity that even the language of faith struggles to get any grip on the edge of that abyss we all hang onto. In a place that was strange to me, it was a meeting in myth on that first morning in Northfield. I discovered a capacity to shape and hold a kind of void within; around which others had then woven something better than I could.

A void worth sharing. 

There is always an essential ambivalence in such unbalanced but efficacious connections, even when they are very intense. They rely on the mythogeographer paying close, polite and respectful attention to everything and yet being ‘not quite there’; and so able to make a deft, intuitive connection to the big picture beyond (or beneath and within) the big pictures.

When I left Northfield I was more determined than ever to be an evangelist for this mythogeography; to encourage more people to take its path – its pilgrimage, even – beyond the big things, through the small things, to the even bigger picture, the picture before decisions.

So, now there is an obligation that arises from my encounter in the Prayer Room, though not one intended by the supplicants there. My part in the upper room octopus and my stay in Northfield in general have made me aware of how little of the potential, the urgency or the route of the mythogeographical pilgrimage I have shared with others. I am trying to go a little further here.

Rethinking Mythography is out now from Triarchy Press.
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