A Psychoanalytic Analysis of “White Paint”
From Crossing the Stream by Noel LaBine
Psychoanalytic Criticism is the analysis and interpretation of literature through the lens of psychology. Two famous theorists inform this rather challenging school of study. Carl Jung could be described as the King of Dreams. His work helped us to structure a study of Archetypes (Mask, Shadow, Anima, and Animus) that we still use today. Jung’s archetypes inform the famous Monomyth, or Hero’s Journey, that Joseph Campbell used to describe nearly every well-loved story told through time.
We would have no Jung, however, if we did not have his teacher Sigmund Freud. It is sad that I have to introduce Freud in a round about way, but it is difficult to mention him without immediately thinking of slips, cigars, and Oedipus. A great deal of Freud’s work was dedicated to studying and understanding human sexuality and sexual drives. What we forget, however, is that sexuality was merely a method to understand the greater human psyche. It is a drive and an organizer, but not everything about us, nor should it be the only way we see his work.
Therefore, it is through Freud that I want to look at the story “White Paint” from Crossing the Stream by Noel LaBine. LaBine decided to write about his experiences in Vietnam, however he did not merely write them as a memoir. He instead chose to take the experiences and feelings and create from them fictional, unique stories based on them. Freud would call this repression – subduing or pushing down a feeling or experience. Theorist Lois Tyson points out something we, as readers of the word, would do well to remember when we consider writers and repression:
“…repression doesn’t eliminate our painful experiences and emotions…we unconsciously behave in ways that will allow us to ‘play out’…our conflicted feelings about the painful experiences and emotions we repress” (12-13).
In his introduction of the “White Paint” excerpt, LaBine admits that putting the experiences of Vietnam into fictional stories makes it easier for him to “tell and express the feelings I’ve had about these events.” Through storytelling, he touches upon his unconsciousness and owns the experience of playing out the feelings, creating for author and reader a deep connection to true events neither may be ready to look at directly.
As we look at “White Paint”, I want to consider the story through the most basic and primal of relationships, the first we experience as human beings: Mother, Father, & child. LaBine begins by recounting a tale about his mother, and the task she gave him of painting a small grotto for a bust of the Virgin Mary. In order to complete this task and please his mother, LaBine takes from his father a small can of white paint, with barely enough to do the work. His father is understandably upset that the paint he had planned to use for equipment has been repurposed, but over time, he comes to accept this.
The simple story is a picture of a maturing boy, who learns to utilize the tools of his father (symbolized by the paint) to bring happiness to another woman (symbolized by his mother). Just as in actuality, his father comes to accept the choice the son made to complete the mother’s task, so does the father come later to accept the decisions of the son when it is no longer Mother’s attention that is sought.
The story is paralleled in Vietnam, when LaBine has to seek out white paint in order to complete an obstacle course for dogs that are being trained on base. The task is arduous, and through it, he comes in contact with a beautiful Vietnamese woman, about the age of his mother, whom he becomes enamored with. She is selling busts of the Buddha, but realities of the war and world around them keep him from purchasing the bust, or from having any interactions with this woman that do not cause her some pain or grief. The world is often cruel, and sons are not always given the opportunity, especially in places where natural order is stirred by confusion and death, to follow through on the lessons they have received.
In this case, before LaBine would have any chance to follow through on a chance meeting, he first has to deal with a would be thief, and then later finds that the woman has been hit by his vehicle. Upon his return to base, he is reprimanded because of the encounter he had with the Vietnamese locals, and sent out on a 5-day detail. He hides the paint he has obtained, so that he can finish his work on the obstacle course when he returns.
Later, LaBine finds that the paint is gone. The paint that was supposed to finish equipment on the base has been instead repurposed for a grotto for a bust of Buddha. LaBine admits he cannot be mad at the man who took the paint, a papasan – a Vietnamese local who would come to the base for work. He admits it is because he knows that the papasan would not understand why he was angry such a small thing. His reaction parallels his father’s own resignation over the fate of white paint. The id will do as it does to fulfill our drives.
Lois Tyson – Critical Theory Today : A User-Friendly Guide – New York – Routledge – 2006 – Vol. 2 – ISBN: 0-415-97410-0
Lynn Perretta is a contributing author to StreetWraith Press. If you want to see more of her work, please visit The Writer’s Manifest. You can also check out her published work through Amazon or Smashwords.