The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue
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The Idol of White, a CANTO (after EP)


The painter’s white
holds great power,
by a simple decision
and sustained application,
white becomes the field,
at the beginning of the world

While the viewer
hangs on to landscape:
a Saskatchewan
wheat field
in the ocean
of winter whiteout
just as the artist
pursues a blizzard white
moving the vanishing point
below zero;

Or rides the encrustations of white
along a ridge,
below a slash
of a lightening strike of blue,
gushing from the undercoat;

Or scratches the smoothest
a thatch for
the black scrawl
of writing,
and run
and run.

As landscape or an ascending cloud bank
white brings comfort.

the painter banished white
as the surface
of all things,
to protest
sheer wanton
human vagrancy,
to put the world itself
in jeopardy.

My breath
on a winter day,
the invisible
grows misty
breath made visible,
breath yielding a sign
as white.
It is, and is a sign
of the very precariousness
of being,
not to be tampered
or taken for granted.
So the color white,
the visual sign
of the passage and the labor
of the invisible
becoming visible,

recalled and reenacted
by all the ceremonies of breath
to wash the self
in smoke,
sweet grass
to wrap the body
in white,
for the body
to be the vital vessel of life
at that moment
when Earth, Air and Fire
converge, curling upward
as smoke into the sky
and vanishing.

The funeral pyre
so much expenditure,
so inefficient
is a deep thought.

Smoke kept in ceremony
so delicate,
and precious
to keep it
out of industry,
We may never recover
from the abuse
of its overuse
the wheezing lungs,
the incinerator
replaces the pyre.

The great peril of white:
it is and
is not a color,
not itself a mark,
receives the marks
to become the highest mark
of all
both nothing and everything,
lending itself
to frightful occupations
to cloak
in white,
to name
the skin,
in raiment
for the filthy deed.

Follow the cathar way
pure of spirit and race
combining alba with genos
the race of
Blake’s dangerous Albion.

White not on the wheel
White as the substratum
White as the apogee
White as sound
the silent shriek
White the cloak,

The sheer lassitude of white.
Cover it all over
in real estate white,
the white house
so many shades
such inviting names
for the indiscernible

How to break into,
to disrupt the madness
of its sheer

the ancients colored their acropoli,
winged ships
with blue sails
guided by the golden goddess.
The moderns, stealing them
so they claimed by
protecting them from the vandals
of weather
left them as
gleaming museal white,
carceral crowns or skulls
a hommage
to the ancients.

Dug into the earth
on either side
of the empty and excluded middle
between opposing armies,
only a matter of time,
to be blown to bits,
they looked up to the clouds
high above,
drifting in the sky
at least with their eyes
they escaped
and dreamed of unreachable
Himalayan peaks
to climb
into the white.

Give white
a place toward the middle
of the color wheel,

above all
keep it away
from falling
off the edge.


Consider the proposal to dispel the idol of white through reform of the color wheel, surrounding white by a community of colors blue, yellow, red, green and even black, expanding into and beyond the confederacy of Cézanne’s palette. The difficulty with the thought contained in Nietzsche’s “idols … struck with a hammer as with a tuning fork” is its seeking a unison that presupposes and pursues a purity of tone, a perfect distillation that very essence Wittgenstein worked so hard to replace with family resemblance in the Investigations. A word for this looser, more modest filiation and earth bound mixing is métissage, current in Canadian indigenous discourse. Métissage goes back to de Champlain and the French Empire on the Grand Rivière du Canada when he proposed the mixing of the French visitors and their indigenous hosts. So the word Métis appeared in the new world to name this new human family, not eradication or the forced assimilation of red into white, the residential schools would come later. The word “métis” itself is the name Mētis, the wife of Zeus, known for her cunning in the matter of the bíos. So métissage is practical reason’s hard labor to weave a new and loose confederacy of forms: no blank slate, degree zero or fable of Terra Nullius: no whitewash.

White not an eternal idol, but an obdurate, still seething, writhing idol of the Age now passing. White needs to be hammered, as with a tuning fork. Nietzsche is right.


Jon Bordo

Jon Bordo is a native Montrealer trained in philosophy and is a cultural theorist at Trent University. His poetry work seeks to find a discursive form to accommodate his aesthetic pursuits. He is at work finishing Canada the Proper Name of the Wilderness and Walter Benjamin at the Library.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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