Contentious relationships, misanthropy, self-hatred, and a flaunting of medical ethics…
differential diagnosis, people.
SPOILERS AHEAD. Imitating the words of Dr. House, himself, don’t be a moron, don’t be an idiot – go watch the show!
‘House’: if you haven’t already had the pleasure to watch, or have heard of, it, it is a TV Series starring Hugh Laurie as the eponymous ‘protagonist’. In brief, the TV series follows him, and his team of specialist doctors, diagnosing and treating patients in the ‘Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital’ in New Jersey, USA. House’s team changes over the seasons, but as I’ve only just started Season 3 – we’ll focus on the first two seasons (probably the better ones, so I’ve heard).
In this article, I want to focus on the character of House, and examine why he is the way he is, with his subordinates and peers also providing excellent points of contrast. Furthermore, I want to posit a controversial point – playing advocatus diaboli against my own article on ‘Timon of Athens’… House’s behaviour is an acceptably rational and appropriate way to perceive and behave in the world.
House often proclaims, and indeed, has his team saying, ‘everybody lies’. House is such a wonderful portrayal for what it means to be a doctor – his nature is almost the antithetical definition of what it means to have a doctor-appropriate disposition, and so his candid approach to his work and life provide us an unfettered, visceral glance at life.
House seems to think that ‘everybody lies’: that humans, including his own patients, are not to be trusted. He aptly puts his view on human nature across by saying, ‘it’s a basic truth of the human condition that everybody lies. The only variable is about what’. This approach is very useful when it comes to dealing with patients. Throughout the series, House encounters patients who lie about having affairs, taking drugs, and even just being in places where they ‘weren’t supposed to be’. House has an uncanny ability to detect these lies, and then force the patients to tell the truth – either by unleashing a brutal diatribe against them explaining that they will die should they not tell the truth… or by taking away their oxygen mask, causing immense pain as they become increasingly hypoxic. Yeah, House isn’t a great one for abiding by the medical ethical code of conduct.
Yet, in House’s personal life, his distrust of humanity results in him being very cynical. House believes that ‘treating illnesses is why [his team and himself] became doctors, [and that] treating patients is what makes most doctors miserable’. So, he treats ‘the disease’, and not ‘the patient’, because only patients can lie, and applies this rule to the rest of his life. He goes to great lengths to distance himself from everyone – often masking his distrust with anger, disdain, witty yet degrading remarks, and only focusing on situations, rather than the people in them.
What can be clearly observed from House is that he has been hurt substantially in the past – both physically, with the infarction and removed thigh muscle in his right leg, but also mentally.
‘You wanna make things right? Too bad, nothing’s ever right’.
Dr. Cameron, the only female on House’s team of specialist diagnosticians, appears to be the only one who can tap into House’s mind. Chase and Foreman (the other team members) cannot be bothered: they see House as a slightly crazed, yet genius doctor. Cameron sees beyond the smoke that House throws up, and begins to probe into his psyche.
What begins to be revealed, after a touching encounter between Dr. Wilson (House’s nearest thing to a best friend) and Dr. Cameron is that House has been severely hurt emotionally in the past by his partner, from 5 years ago (around the time House had his leg butchered).
Combining his physical disability, and his mental trauma, House is not just eccentric, he is attempting to deal with a world that has taken up against him. He has tried to extricate himself from the spiderweb of emotions and humanity, and elevate his mind to a purely rational state – a position from which he can never be hurt. This explains Cameron’s reason for liking House: he does what he thinks is right. Nothing, for the most part, dissuades House either from thinking that he is right about something, or from thinking what he is doing is right, or both.
Knowing more about House’s psychology allows us to understand why he dismisses the medical ethics code. He really does not care if he is put in jail, if he is killed, or whether he is hated by the world – all he cares about is whether he solved the mystery, and got the solution right. His job is to diagnose and treat patients with illnesses that no one else can, so the challenge is very high, yet this ‘challenge’ is seemingly the only thing which House responds to.
Another of his favourite quips is that he will confirm his diagnosis when the patient goes for autopsy: implying that his team should trust him, start treatment for House’s diagnosis, and not disagree, which would, should disagreement and time-wasting occur, cause the patient to die, allowing for House to prove himself in the morgue. He doesn’t care whether the patient dies, he cares that he is right.
‘There’s nothing in this universe that can’t be explained. Eventually’.
So, House has big trust issues, and minor Daddy issues (not really that relevant here), a dislike for the capricious and undependable human condition, and a pain-medication addiction. Oh yeah, if you did not know, House is a drug addict.
House regularly chugs down pills of Vicodin (a mix of hydrocodone – an opioid; and paracetamol), and, for special occasions, takes shots of morphine. This is due to his leg, which produces chronic pain. In the words of his coworkers, Dr. Cuddy and Dr. Wilson, House appears to have a ‘pain-management problem’, colloquially known as a drug addiction.
Yet, the pain goes away when House is working – or at least it decreases to such an extent that he can function without bemoaning how bad his condition is. It’s clear House needs distractions. His work is a key distraction, but sometimes it is not enough. At some of his lower points, House has had to resort to hiring prostitutes, or being tricked unwittingly by Dr. Cuddy with a placebo shot of morphine (actually saline) into his spine.
House seems to be uncomfortable taking a step back and looking calmly and objectively about the world, and, indeed, his life. He always has to be doing something to take his mind off the pain in his leg, and seemingly, the pain in his mind. Although I have not watched the later seasons, I know that, later, House takes up hobbies that he becomes obsessive about, such as cooking. Much like his work, House needs a distraction, but whatever that distraction is, it becomes an obsession, a crutch, to get away from whatever is chasing him.
‘Read less, more TV’
Okay, once again, to recap – to get away from his problems caused by past harm, House seeks refuge in an overly clinical and rational mindset, opioid medication, and expressing his emotions through witty, yet brutally rude, quips. However, even House would agree that to sustain some semblance of a life worth living, there has to be pleasure…
House seems to derive his pleasure from adrenaline hits. He drives a racing motorcycle (despite his condition), and he works a time-pressured, high-risk job. Even if he had concern for the people involved in either of the activities, he certainly cares about what he gets from it. The motorcycle allows him to ‘live on the edge’, whilst the job gives him what all geniuses want: a difficult problem that only they could solve if they stretched themselves. Both give adrenaline and give House some kind of buzz that keeps him going, or at the very least, distracted. When his job dies down, when there are fewer cases, House’s leg starts to hurt badly and he becomes increasingly erratic, bordering on insane. The question is, which is really working to suppress House’s pain, the buzz and obsession, or the pain medication?
‘You can’t always get what you want’.
Truth be told, and if you could not already tell, I love House – both the character, and the series itself. The show makes me laugh, it makes me philosophise, it makes me intrigued (dearest mother, if you are reading, I still do not want to be a doctor). But, above all, House, and the series, really does move me.
House is probably suffering more than most his patients. Although he has a few friends, his team, and some love interests – he is alone in his head, fighting off all the trappings of life and the human condition. In a way, House is one of the most admirable characters I know.
To cope with what he’s going through, he adopts a psuedo-Stoic response. He tries to not grapple with the usual emotions of guilt, pity, happiness, sadness. His only outlet appears to be anger, or, if we look below the skin, desperation. And when the desperate person, in a paradoxical fashion (in that a desperate person behaves not-desperate), rejects external help, pity, sympathy, empathy, or any kind of love – it just makes them all the more miserable-looking, and we want to love and care for them more.
‘Teardrop on the fire / Feathers on my breath’.
So, why might House reject any human attempts to help…? Well, the answer is one that has already been discussed: a mistrust of humanity.
There was a rather unethical study conducted in 1965 by Seligman. The study developed a theory known as ‘Learned Helplessness’. I will not go into detail about the study here (be warned, its rather distressing), but the result of the experiment determined that when one learns to think that it cannot control a painful situation, one gives up, and accepts the pain, not even trying to escape or change it.
Now, more modern neuroscience has questioned the conclusion of the experiment, but if nothing else, it is a good analogy. House has been repeatedly harmed throughout his life, he’s built up a decent resistance towards it, but ultimately, he’s very sensitive underneath his sarcastic and occasionally phlegmatic armour. He thinks that the world and the people in it are out to cause him pain. So, he assumes a Stoical position: he cannot control the pain, so he deflects, puts up walls, and does everything he can to make himself feel not helpless. This explains why he loves his job, and in his words he needs ‘the puzzle’ – it gives him control, purpose, and drive to live on.
In a world filled with disease, trauma, liars, heart-breakers, and evil, House’s reaction is…actually one of the best ways to go about it. He gets it right – sure, he lives his life in a rather two-dimensional nature, and it is more grey than colour, but at least he has tried his hardest to wall himself off from the horrors and potential pains of the world.
The song, ‘Teardrop’ by Massive Attack is used in the introduction title cards for ‘House’. An executive producer on the show claimed that the entire concept of House was based on ‘Teardrop’. Now, the song is catchy, and, as a result of the show, pretty famous. The beat resembles that of a heartbeat, and the melody and lyrics are poignant, if not a little cryptic.
The song seems to encapsulate feelings of love, and freedom, yet also immense sorrow and pain. The heartbeat rhythm is aptly suited for a medical drama, but the lyrics point to something a little more poignant regarding House. There are lots of interpretations of ‘Teardrop’, some arguing that the song is about a lost relationship, lover, baby, and so on. The main point is that the song accentuates the complexity of House’s condition, and even though we root for him, we should be very concerned about what he is going through. However, we should perhaps learn to accept it – after all, if House lives in his own world where he thinks he is safe, is that not okay…or even, healthy?
‘It’s one of the great tragedies of life — something always changes’.
I am not trying to argue that should the world be cruel to you, you should find some eccentric (and rather unhealthy) coping mechanisms, or indeed, live in a slightly deluded state where you think you can play God in your world. However, I am trying to argue that House is not crazy – what he is doing is completely rational considering his past, present, and what he sees as his future.
I will not leave you on some happy note, or suggest a solution – that is not the point. Rather, I hope this article has elucidated House’s condition, and explained why some individuals are misanthropic, have destructive coping mechanisms, or in general come across as eccentric or crazed. The world is a big, bad place – living in it, and living with yourself, when you are aware, or have experienced these nasty traits, is very difficult. Indeed, in some situations, much like House’s, people are one pill away, or one job matter away from losing their grip on their lives. So, when you experience someone living that life – just think about what they might be going through, but always remember, whether you are the sufferer, or onlooker, House’s doctrine of ‘arrogance has to be earned’ still rings true.
Furthermore, and finally, I want to open up this discussion with a few questions.
- What is your opinion on human nature?
- Does ‘everybody lie’?
- Is misanthropy a justified response to repeated trauma?
- Is Stoicism the right approach to life?
- Where can the line be drawn between a valid outlook on life, and a mental perversion?
I encourage everyone to comment on the article to answer these questions, or even pose some of your own! If you would like to compose a more detailed response to this article, or any of the questions, please do.