White Is Not Always Fair

  • onAugust 3, 2016
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byHan Kang

White things—things that are pure and clean—which sterilize the parts of life that have been dirtied. That cure wounds. “Something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound.” (p. 10) This book, by reading and writing such white things, will smooth over and bandage the wounded heart.

Before reading a book there are times when we have assumptions about what it is going to offer; if your assumptions about The White Book were like the lines above, you would be left with a very different impression after actually reading the work. At first it seems like the kind of simple friendly work that divides the pure and the dirty, the light and the dark, and takes only that which is clean and fair, but in the end The White Book has nothing to do with such a blinkered, selective kind of writing.

Life can never be pure, it is always colored in various hues that clash, break and get broken, dye and become dyed. Our hearts and minds get caught up in the crossfire of this color and suffer ever-changing wounds. Life is mottled and untidy; it is a dizzying ballroom of mottled things and is in essence the possibility of getting wounded. Therefore writing which seeks to be truthful about life, as long as it does not get snagged by foolish temptation, does not look towards purity or all that is fair, bright, and without injury, but rather proceeds out onto the dance floor filled with the wounds of mottled things. This is the kind of writing that makes up The White Book.



So why is it not ‘dappled’ or ‘variegated’? Why white? Because there is more to white than meets the eye. White is not a color or hue that accompanies yellow or black, red or blue. For the colors from yellow to blue to be possible, there must first be something for those colors to color, something as yet uncolored, a lack or emptiness—something akin to a blank white canvas. In this way the whiteness of a canvas is not equal to other colors like yellow, black, red, or blue. It is a shade on a more fundamental level, and it is the background shade that makes all other colors possible. White is the same as that which makes all other sounds possible, the frame of potential for sound that is silence.1

In this way white is not particularly bright or fair. Rather, it is already the frame of potential for all colors, and somewhere at its root those potentials bubble up towards the visible surface. In this way white itself is mottled. As Han Kang writes in “Fog” and “Candle”: in the thick white fog the ghosts of many colors wander with eyes that can never be seen. As white is life not realized, it can also be the color of death. If we think in this way, death cannot be seen merely as a ceasing of life’s functions or an extinguishing, but rather must be understood as something which is not yet a life realized—a space of potential that could be filled with life, or else a potential which exists transcending life realized.



Therefore thinking about whiteness is not “turning away from death to face life,” but rather honing in to focus on “that in life which is not yet part of life, or else that which has already passed beyond life” and thus approaching death. Inside of thinking about whiteness it is more correct to say that life and death in fact overlap. And so a newborn baby, a body that has just died, and the mourners who send their loved one away all wear white clothing—the newborn gown, the shroud, and the mourning dress. Life that has already passed, life, which is as yet approaching, the life that we are now living through—all of it is held within whiteness.

Again, thinking about whiteness is the search for the white that always lingers beneath the layers plied onto a painted canvas that cannot be smothered completely, and from that whiteness unearthed new colors can be brought forth. Or else it serves to awaken that which lies dormant beneath a blank canvas, and as a means of checking that this lack of color does not present a simple emptiness, it also serves to make both life and death more abundant. In the end, thinking about whiteness can become an opportunity for us to actually, truly want this life, which we have no option but to accept, and go on living.

When we read The White Book, what is it that the work is offering to us? It is precisely this opportunity. 


by Kwon Heecheol
Literary Critic


1 See: Kandinsky, Concerning the Spritual in Art, Trans. Kwon Yeong-pil, Youlhwadang Publishers, 1986, pp. 81-83; Kim Sang-hwan, Philosophy of the Deconstruction Era, Moonji Publications, 1996, pp. 74-85