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Arthur Machen, flâneur

Dorothy Dehner, “New City” / 1953 / ink and watercolor on paper / MoMA

Arthur Machen was the pen-name of Arthur Llewellyn Jones, a Welsh author and mystic of the 1890s and early 20th century. And his reputation would be secure on that simple foundation. But Machen is also a key figure in the field of psycho-geography (which I’m hyphenating here because spell-checking doesn’t approve it otherwise). Machen’s contribution to this hybrid activity was his 1924 volume The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering, which I’m enjoying now that the semester is over.

One definition of psycho-geography sounded familiar and turns out to have been something I read in the Utne Reader a few years ago: “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape.” Also turns out that Howard tried his hand at it in the first of the sesqui-centennial articles.

I’ve experienced Agincourt through Howard’s senses but fundamentally his eyes. Like opera, however, which is far better than it sounds, and architecture which is better than it looks, the city is probably a far richer encounter when approached multi-sensorially. Agincourt has to be an aural and olfactory experience, as well as a visual one. What are its thermal delights? How does it speak to the sensitive soles of the blind man’s feet? Then there’s taste: pie-and-coffee at Adams Restaurant; communion wafers at Christ the King (which is more tactile than tasty); or a baguette from Vandervort’s Bakery (whose crunchy crust contributes to the sight, sound, and feel of the bread long before it reaches the tongue).

The science of sense suggests that the nose plays a far more important role in memory stimulation that sight. And I can attest that a whiff of egg salad can transport me to the fridge in my grandmother’s kitchen faster the speed of light. Tell me about the smells of your youth, good or bad? (Indifferent won’t have registered, I suspect.) Map your childhood neighborhood based on sound. Right now I’m working on a large map of Agincourt and Fennimore county as my entry in the Midwestern exhibition at the Rourke. Something tells me I ought to give Howard a call.


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