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The Agony of DeFeet

I spent this past August soaking in the spectacle of the Athens Olympics. From director Dimitris Papaioannou’s opening ceremonies (very Robert Wilson), to the poetry of shot putters at Olympus; the palpable history and pageantry were at times overwhelming and inspiring. We found ourselves frequenting Greek restaurants, searching out Greek wines, and seeing the world through Greek mythology.

Rather than searching for equivalents between Mt. Olympus and design history, I became temporarily obsessed with a particular character from Greek mythology: the archer Philoctetes.


Many contemporary folks were probably introduced to Philoctetes (fi-lok-tee-teez) through American critic Edmund Wilson and his essay The Wound and the Bow — but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, some rushed descriptions and over-simplifications:

Different versions and interpretations of the myth describe Philoctetes as either a follower or lover of Hercules; who inherited an unerring bow and arrows as reward for lighting the hero’s funeral pyre. On the way to the Trojan War, he accidentally stepped off a path leading to a shrine, onto sacred ground and was bitten on the foot by a protecting serpent. Being a devine punishment, the wound didn’t heal and turned into a stinking, festering pus hole. The stench, plus his constant screams of agony, were too much for his traveling companions (led by Odysseus/Ulysses) and he was stranded on the island of Lemnos.

Sophocles’ Philoctetes begins ten years later with Odysseus back on Lemnos, searching for the archer. The war has dragged on too savagely long, and the Greeks had been told by a seer that only Hercules’ bow and arrows could defeat the Trojans. Odysseus sends Neoptolemus to deceive Philoctetes into joining them with an empty promise of a journey home. Neoptolemus also tries the old “why don’t you let me hold on to your bow and arrows for you” deception.

Long story short, Neoptolemus finally tells Philoctetes the truth, abandonment issues are resolved, and they all set sail for Troy. The myths further describe the healing of Philoctetes’ wound and how he kills Paris, setting the stage for the fall of Troy with the Trojan Horse.

It was Wilson’s essay that first drew the metaphorical comparison between Philoctetes, the artist, and their mutual separation from society. It described the figure of the indispensable sufferer; and explored how Philoctetes’ wound gave him a certain nobility — a sort of character building through suffering. Wilson wasn’t the first to mine the dichotomy of illness/strength or trauma/art. These are old standards in the history of art: Charlie Parker, Borges, Toulouse-Lautrec… As are the ‘fish out of water’ variations caused by differences of language, gender, culture, etc.: Nabokov, James Baldwin, Billy Strayhorn, Rimbaud…

But what drew my interest were mundane trivia, like how ‘Philoctetes’ translates as ‘lover of things’; the easy metaphor of the Greeks’ initial attempts to get the computer bow, but not the designer archer; or the melodramatic metaphor of the most capable person being the least wanted.


…then I began to think about all the neurotic hand-wringing over how designers want to be involved earlier in business planning. And you know what? Maybe that’s the last thing we should have. Because at that moment, we lose part of our desire and the ‘otherness’ that makes us so unique. Disappointment can be a great source for creativity. And perhaps if more designers ever found themselves better positioned in the hierarchy of American business, we would have to create another issue to carp about.

So for now, let’s learn to cherish our position in the great myth.

In the words of a certain television show, “…be seeing you.”


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PUBLISHED ON Sep.06.2004 BY m. kingsley
Randy’s comment is:

So for now, let’s learn to cherish our position in the great myth.

If not now, then when? And why not now to make planned progress for greater respect and influence?

Have too many designers tried for the seat and not made it? Is there always the glass ceiling Rob Bennett refers to? I don't think there is.

As a young designer in an environment that supports my ambitions, I wonder if this optimism and confidence is only mine. I've experienced the pieces working in isolation. I've seen them working together, in practice in books, business news, and this site itself. The emerging individuals that will be most successful and influential in this discipline are those that will learn from the success and failures of similar endeavors is the recent past and formulate new ways of selling their own ability to fill an influential role.

I must admit, that cherish is the least hostile of terms with which to find contentment in stasis. If the proposition is for all of us to join in and be satisfied with the current state of a designer in the business hierarchy, then on behalf of at least myself, I respectfully decline the invitation.

Am I just an idealist? I'd like to think its closer to an optimistic and opportunistic realist. Am I strategic business planner with an acute understanding of the value of design? Perhaps...

I was attracted to and began to understand design for its aesthetic qualities, later becoming seduced by its power and widespread influence. Design is romantic. Visual and experiential beauty is fulfilling for both viewer and creator. I am certain it is not only admirable but completely feasible to inspire and shape an approach to design that begins at "the table," fusing strategic business thinking with the process and art of designing. More than feasible, it is necessary.

I am certainly not a Greek hero or an Olympian, but I train for this day in and day out (and night in and night out). I condition myself and my performance to reach an end that only the best trained might reach.

While I appreciate (read: cherish) and respect where I have been and where I am going, I look up and forward for possibilities yet unexplored.

The designer in a respected seat at the table is every bit as beautiful as Bannister's Four-Minute Mile and Papaioannou's Eros.

Right now, let's learn to define our position in the current-turn-future reality.

On Sep.06.2004 at 06:28 PM
marian’s comment is:

Well, fully expecting you to tell me to go read Wilson et al., I have to say, Why Philoctetes and us? I just don't see the parallel. Because he suffered and was a big whiner? Because he was valued more for his tools than his skill?

Did we at some point fall off the path (of Art?) and get bitten by a serpent (Commerce?) causing us to scream in eternal agony?

Are we lovers of things? What was Hercules to us? And how did we aid in the fall of metaphorical Troy? I just don't see how Philoctetes=Designer, or even Artist.

But if I were just to acccept it, and say OK, greater minds than I have successfully made the parallel, I'm still a little confused about this "cherish our position" business. Would that be the position where we were cured of our whining, accepted back into heroic society and proved our ultimate worth with our skills? Or are you advocating that we do just that to then complete our role in the great myth?

Or are you saying that it's our otherness that gives us strength, and that we should resume our role as the whiner on the island? I can't imagine that you're saying that. There seems to be message of a "Stop the neurotic hand-wringing," coupled with "being an outsider makes you what you are."

But it seems to me that in the end, Philoctetes probably got crowned with a laurel wreath and carried around like a hero. Lucky bastard.

On Sep.06.2004 at 09:27 PM
RavenOne’s comment is:

Nice little parallel, even if it doesn't fit all points, as Marian points out. Reading about stinky-foot-man and his Magical Bow made me have warm, fuzzy feelings, reminding me of my mythology class in college last semester...mmmmm...

On the topic of Otherness, I once read somewhere that those who were 'other' wanted most to be normal, and those who were normal dreampt of being other; no one is satisfied with their station in life.

Nice article, btw. And spiffy pictures.

On Sep.06.2004 at 11:23 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Oh my, it looks this one's going over like a lead balloon.

Here it is in outline form:

1. Artists have an ability = Philoctetes had an ability with a bow and arrow

2. Artists are separate from society = stinky wound, isolated on an island

3a. The neurosis of Philoctetes = desire to be healed and accepted

3b. The neurosis of the artist = desire to be in society

4. Philoctetes is repulsive, yet needed =

Artists are outside society, yet are necessary to 'define' society =

Designers are 'outside' business, yet necessary to business

5. From 'illness' comes strength = From 'trauma' comes art

(please note that the words 'illness' and 'trauma' are in quotes)

6a. Philoctetes = lover of things

6b. Designers = arrangers of things

6c. Designers = involved with 'things'

6d. Designers = manipulators of 'things'

7. Greeks really want the bow, not the archer = clients often think that having computers and software can replace the designer

8. Designers want to be part of early business plan = Philoctetes wants to be back in society

9. The 'desire' of the designer = the desire of Philoctetes

10a. 'Desire' is what makes designers (or artists) unique

10b. Philoctetes' desire becomes the source of his 'nobility'

11a. Lack of fulfillment can become motivation

11b. Motivation is another way to describe inspiration

12. Those with artistic temperment are often unsatisfied, no matter what their position is

13. Understanding one's position can lead to appreciating one's position can lead to acceptance can lead to self-awareness...

...and finally, as a cheeky aside:

14. Oblique reference to obscure English television show suggests that we are doomed, trapped, etc. in a prison that we ultimately control

On Sep.06.2004 at 11:32 PM
Randy’s comment is:

Thanks for clarifying some of the parallels. Regardless of whether one made each association or not, the general ones are quite apparent. I don't question the validity the comparisons.

What I am still curious about is the reasoning behind the conclusion reached through resolving this mythological parallel.

On Sep.07.2004 at 12:10 AM
M. Kingsley’s comment is:

Sorry Randy, the beauty of myths and metaphors is that you're gonna have to float on your own cloud and let things either be or become. Spelling things out outs thing's spells. If what I've written has any resonance in your experience, great. If not, that's fine too.


On Sep.07.2004 at 02:14 AM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

You are Number 6.

On Sep.07.2004 at 04:22 AM
Tom B’s comment is:

By hook or by crook we will!

On Sep.07.2004 at 06:49 AM
Armin’s comment is:

He is not a number… he is a free man!

More constructive and useful comment forthcoming.

On Sep.07.2004 at 08:39 AM
marian’s comment is:

Oh my, it looks this one's going over like a lead balloon.

Not at all, you've only just got started.

Thanks for the Coles Notes, greater mind ... somehow it seems like good material for Matthew Barney ...

I do think an equally strong case could be made for a thread between the artist and many other characters of the myths BUT that's not the point. You have cast us as Philoctetes, given us our history, character and motivation, and directed us to act according to our part.

Indeed the Greek myths vary wildly and are equally wildly open to interpretation. According to Robert Graves, one account has it that Philoctetes' wound had been long healed [by various sources] and that "Odysseus and Diomedes had no need to tempt Philoctetes with offers of medical treatment; he came willingly enough, carrying his bow and arrows, to win the war for them and glory for himself." Hmmm. ... "According to still another account, the deputation found him long dead of the wound and persuaded his heirs to let them borrow the bow."

(Now there we're onto something.)

But Graves favours the explanation that Philoctetes' bow and arrow were first stolen from him, and then with the intervention of the god Hercules (Heracles), was promised a cure for his wound and that "You shall kill Paris, take part in the sack of Troy, and send home the spoils..." by this account, Philoctetes went on as "the boldest fighter of them all" to live a long life of general conquering and amassing of property.

So perhaps our future acceptance into society and eventual reward is assured.

On Sep.07.2004 at 11:22 AM
vibranium’s comment is:

I'm sure i missed many levels. But I have to say...reading your post sent me into a visual landslide. Maybe it's the sagitarrius in me. I am still reeling. Very visual. very. thanks.


On Sep.07.2004 at 11:29 AM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Marian -

I didn't bring up Graves purely out of convenience — and fidelity to Wilson's original ideas. But yeah, these stories are all there for our own personal sacking. Several years ago, I found great inspiration in the dialogues between Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.

Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth:

Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward, and you begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people's myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts — but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you to put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. Myth tells you what the experience is.

On Sep.07.2004 at 12:54 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

I've been thinking about Philoctetes and his manky foot all day. One thing bothers me.

If, by your analogy, it is Philoctetes' desire to be back in society that gives him his nobility, then he can never 'learn to cherish' his position.

By accepting his exile as a noble position he would lose his desire, and thus his nobility.

He may live a happy life on his island, unaware that he is suffering delusions of grandeur. But I suspect that if he figured out that his nobility came from his desire, he would also see the inherent paradox. And in true Greek-myth style, he would have gone completely insane.

Following the metaphor through then, designers can never learn to cherish our position, because doing so would destroy our uniquness - and we would drive ourselves crazy.

We can never settle for 'just doing design' (whatever that means) because design itself is more than 'just doing design'. Really great designers are constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be acheived - and this means not just accepting their position.

Those that do accept the role of 'just doing design' are either living with delusions of grandeur or, in true Greek-myth style, are completely insane.

On Sep.07.2004 at 01:21 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

TomB -

First, I used 'nobility' in quotes. I had hoped to suggest some sort of slippage between accepted meaning and metaphorical meaning. Besides, the idea of 'nobility' comes from Wilson. I only used his essay, plus the Olympics, plus lots of Greek food as touchstones on the way to a reverie. My position is not intractable, nor should it be. In fact, I have no position here other than to stand in piles of perhaps, mayhap and how 'bout.

What is interesting is is is how your questions step off the path to tread dangerously on the ground of neurosis — which is an attribute given to both Philoctetes and the artist.

You're my hero, but there are no answers here. Just chew on these ruminations for a while.

Hey! My first livestock pun!

On Sep.07.2004 at 01:49 PM
marian’s comment is:

Actually, it seems that Philoctetes wasn't doing all that badly on the isle of Lemnos. OK, so he suffered from pain, but he was king and he conquered a few small islands. Think of him as a 1-person design firm. Very talented, with a few, small, troublesome-but-paying clients.

Next thing you know, he's with Pentagram, and everyone's singing his praises. That he got there by a combination of trickery (upon him) and divine intervention is a little odd. But perhaps the pertinent information is that he wasn't sitting around hankering for acceptance back into society. He was just living his suffering life and Pentagram said "Hey, bring me Philoctetes." (Actually they said "We need those Flash skills," and Hercules said, "No, you need the man himself.")

So it all goes back to "Do the best work you can do, and success will find you."

If you believe that.

On Sep.07.2004 at 03:03 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

That's fabulous Marian. In Sophocles' version, Hercules appears at the end as a desu ex machina — which for me are my (hopefully) future Lottery winnings.

On Sep.07.2004 at 03:14 PM
Tom B’s comment is:

Mr Kingsley, I like your style. We need more allegory in these discussions - it makes arguments much more fun.

I was never suggesting that designers should consider themselves 'noble'. I was just pushing towards the 'reductio ad vesanium' - a policy I've always found interesting.

By suggesting an allegory, you must allow the logical reductia that inevitably follow. The argument that you 'have no position here' just doesn't wash. I'd like you to back up what you said with some sort of explanation - otherwise I'll have to conclude that you're insane as well.

I know that you're being speculative in order to promote debate. But there is always a context to any statement. You said that artists and designers ought to 'learn to cherish' their position. I'd like to know what led you to this conjecture.

It's too easy to say that everything is subjective, that there are 'no answers here'. The postmodern pespective is attractive, but ultimately delusional.

Just like Philoctetes, we've no choice but to keep on pushing for acceptance, for truth, and for answers - because the alternative is to descend into madness.

On Sep.07.2004 at 05:15 PM
RavenOne’s comment is:

The thing that makes me think is that Philo. got his magical bow and arrows from Hercules, who is not, in mythology a nice guy...at all (mm. Lets go slaughter people.... and get in trouble, make up for that trouble by serving the whims of he-who-hides-in-pots, forget the lesson, and end up having to cross-dress for a while). (Disney can eat my stinky socks!) Would this correlate to talent being gotten from some malevolent force?

I mean, Phil didn't make the bows and do archery stuff by himself. Hercules gave him the power. It wasn't (IMHO) earned...is talent unearned? Success?

And heck, where does Achilles fit into this metaphor? -talent gone wild=self-destruction?

On Sep.07.2004 at 10:09 PM
marian’s comment is:

RavenOne, I'm sorry, I just can't help myself, but another version has it that Philoctetes wasn't bitten by a snake at all but was wounded by one of Hercules' poison-tipped arrows (sortof from beyond the grave) as punishment for blabbing about where Hercules' grave was. So add that to your ruminations. Ill-gotten talent which turns around and bites us in the ass heel?

(Sorry Mark, I know I'm not helping.)

On Sep.07.2004 at 11:55 PM
RavenOne’s comment is:

Marian --hrm. Good point? Or bad. I'm not sure which...I guess it goes to show you just shouldn't play with funky arrows or nessus (sp) shirts, or listen to strange centaurs in the middle of the night or... okay, just stay out of mythology land because you'll get chased by horney gods and have to turn into a tree...

On Sep.08.2004 at 12:00 AM