Thursday, November 20, 2008
The House Within
The Christ figure of ultimate rationalism.
AFTERTHOUGHTS. Now that IP has just raised the issue of religious faith in the conservative coalition, I'm having kind of an "aha" moment. When he reproduced the comment that got him banned from DailyPundit, I was intrigued by the TV shows he pressed on Bill Quick. South Park and AbFab seem pretty self-explanatory; puncturing self-absorbed self-importance and skewering fads of the moment are their stock in trade, and viewing them would obviously be therapeutic to anyone who's gotten the cockeyed notion he might be saving the world with his latest obsession of the moment. The recommendation of House, though, didn't make immediate sense to me. Now it's beginning to.
I watched it frequently during the first two seasons and enjoyed it for a while as a truly dark comedy, which is unusual fare in commercial American TV. (If that sounds snobbish, I don't mean it to. Americans like comedies, and they also like dark dramas aplenty, from Law and Order SVU to Lost and Fringe. But Neilsen ratings would tend to suggest that comedic dark dramas haven't exactly become a genre.) The ratings success of House produced at least one attempt at a copy, 3 lbs, but it was cancelled after a handful of episodes. From the start, the show's biggest attraction was the star, Hugh Laurie, who succeeded amazingly well in making his character magnetic, if not likeable, and I enjoyed his performance in the role, which was actually quite extraordinary. He somehow contrived to translate broad acting methods appropriate for the theatrical stage into the miniature world of TV acting without looking like John Barrymore hamming it up in all his terrible movies.
Then I grew weary of the formulaic plots and the, well, darkness of it all. In a typical episode, and they got increasingly typical, a patient would present to the Princeton-Plainsboro hospital with curious or contradictory symptoms which required the sagacity of the world's greatest diagnostician to decrypt. The unrelievedly misanthropic Gregory House would then proceed to bully and insult his not terribly attractive underlings into testing his unconfirmed diagnostic theories by proceeding immediately to treatments which usually resulted in making the patient progressively worse until, at the last possible moment, he just saw the answer and saved the day. Along the way, House also pursued a series of petty personal vendettas and obsessions that seemed designed to drive everyone as far away from him as possible. It didn't help that the historical antecedent for his character was Sherlock Holmes, cold, blunt, ruthlessly analytical, uniquely arrogant, and at least professedly unconcerned with anything but the parts of the puzzle that contained "a few points of interest." Also like Holmes, House was a drug addict, employing Vicodin the way his antecedent used cocaine to keep his mind separated from the demands of the body, which in House's case is embodied by a crippled leg in constant pain. But Sherlock Holmes was a paragon of human empathy compared to House, who mostly couldn't be bothered to see his patients in person or even remember their names. I stopped watching.
It would have ended there if it hadn't been for the election season. House was a one-trick pony, and the trick had ceased to entertain. But with the saturation of pro-Obama politicking in all television programming from news to late night to everywhere, I began of an evening to scout the reruns on lesser cable channels. There's one that seems 100 percent allocated to NCIS and House, curious combination, and I fell into a month-long habit of avoiding Fox News and other annoyances by watching the reruns of these two shows. And I made a discovery. House is every bit as bad as I've suggested it is. But it's also much better. There's a long arc to the show that transforms even its worst, most formulaic aspects into a kind of contemporary parable.
I'd have kept all this to myself if it hadn't been for IP's citation and his subsequent elevation of the importance of belief. So I could be completely wrong about this, but here's my brand new diagnosis of House.
It isn't a dark comedy at all. It's a tragedy. That's why Hugh Laurie's surprisingly stage-oriented acting style is so successful. He's a tragic hero, an archetype of a fatally flawed world view which all of us share to one degree or another without the annihilating self-awareness Gregory House exemplifies and struggles against to no avail. (I concede I almost have to be wrong about this because how could it happen on a network entertainment show? Some subliminal effect conveyed to the writers by Hugh Laurie's talent, Oxbridge education, and dramatic instincts? Don't know. Just take my theorizing with a grain of salt. It could be post-election dementia, after all...)
House is the reductio ad absurdem of rational man. He scorns the possibility of God, or any god, with particular malice toward those who believe in a loving, interventionist, salvational god. And because he is so pure in his application of reason -- a la Sherlock Holmes -- he is ruthless about exposing the illogic and fuzzy compromises of those who want to have it both ways, believing in science while still giving lip service to the ineffable in human beings and their individual lives. He is the lone honest man in a schizophrenically dishonest culture. In this context, it's interesting that he is surrounded by a veritable constellation of dishonest compromisers, all of them physicians who understand and believe in the essential physicality of the human animal but seek to avoid the consequences of that belief in their own archetypal ways. There is the best friend (?), every bit as neurotic and damaged as House, who nevertheless believes that romantic love can save him. There is the hospital administrator who defers to House at every truly critical moment and who nevertheless believes that motherhood in some (any) form can save her. There are the three smart young staffers who work for House and yet believe that they can be saved by, respectively, self-sacrificing human empathy, absolute professional integrity, and yearning half-belief in God. Trained to disbelieve in meaning, they make it up out of their own deepest hurts to stave off the dark night of the soul. Only House has the guts to live without meaning. He makes mincemeat of all of them. He continuously exposes their hypocrisies, ridicules their delusions, humiliates their pretensions, and asserts his ultimate dominance by remaining absolutely pure in his rationality -- and his misery.
But it's not the case that he's never confounded or brought up short. He is, on an intermittent basis, by the patients he saves so cavalierly and so painfully (to them), as well as by characters who are expressly introduced as villains in terms of plot. His greatest frustrations occur when he encounters those who are clearly religious, or good, or committed to something more important than their own lives. There was the nun whose promiscuous pre-religious life he ruthlessly rooted out only to discover that her faith was proof against his disdain and that it had been strengthened by the seeming arbitrariness of her impending death. In this case, the cause of her illlness proved to be a long-forgotten copper IUD -- cruciform. There was the police detective who ran a House-style vendetta against House for his drug use and would have sent him to prison if all the disapproving physicians who alternately tolerated and contemned his addiction hadn't closed ranks around him and lied to get him off the hook. This outcome made no sense until the episode which began with a disgruntled House customer who shot him. In what was revealed at the end as a prolonged hallucination, House wound up in intensive care in a bed next to his attacker, who served as a kind of Grand Inquisitor on House's life.
In fact, this show produced the "aha" moment I referred to earlier. The shooter was the widower of a woman House had, in fact, healed, though his relentless search for the truth extracted a medically irrelevant confession of infidelity from the husband which House still shared with his patient. After leaving the hospital, the woman killed herself. The shooter acknowledged that he himself was principally responsible for his wife's death, but he also pressed House with the question, "Why can't you admit that you are at least partially responsible, too?" With typically checkmate logic, House retorted, "You can shoot people or you can ask for an apology. You can't do both." But later on, it's the shooter who has the upper hand. Referring to House's dependence on Vicodin, he points out (I'm paraphrasing now), "You use drugs to separate yourself from your body, so that life can be all about the mind, reason, intellect. But you despise people because they're physical in a way you refuse to be. So you wipe out all the value of what you do. It's all meaningless, and your existence is also meaningless as a result."
There is a moment in the episode where House turns to the shooter, unexpectedly and out of context, and says, "I'm sorry." Importantly, I believe, the rest of the episode closes slowly on the fact that House's brilliant mind is gradually deducing, a la Sherlock Holmes, that he is hallucinating an unreality that makes no sense. Which might very well be the permanent condition of House's life.
That's the fatal contradiction this show is slowly hammering into its audience, blow by blow and repetitive episode by repetitive episode. The supremely and exclusively rational view of the human condition as a purely physical phenomenon makes no sense because no one has any reason to survive if that is the truth of it. House's perseverant courage -- and it is courage, which is the core of his charisma -- notwithstanding, there is nothing more soul-destroying than the existential humiliation of the slowly closing grip of death, which squeezes all dignity from our lives in the form of piss and shit and pus and other disgusting symptoms of decay and futility. House is never more eloquent than when he is arguing for people to keep on living because there is nothing afterwards to look forward to and the process of dying itself is inevitably, invariably, ugly and terrible beyond imagining,
House dares to act out the real consequences of regarding all human life as a combination of physiology, genetics, and environmental influences we are powerless to control. Yes, he has the doomed wit of an Oscar Wilde, but he is also as doomed as Wilde. As are the people around him who share his rational perspective but try to deny it in dishonest ways. We're being asked to look at a laboratory experiment involving some of the personal and professional credentials we've been taught to admire most. Their exclusively or predominantly rational worldview doesn't work. Surely, this is the reason why Al Gore stays on the national stage by predicting an environmental doom that is somehow emotionally pleasing to millions of people. It's how Obama got elected decrying all the terrible, inveterate flaws in the nation so many of us love for its idealism, hope, and aspiration. It's why Richard Dawkins can get away with making a religion of purposeless existence and atheism. The part of us that responds to these abysmal visions is the part that believes the wordview we've been taught in school for a century or more.
The message for those who oppose this dismal "liberal" view is not to devise a new political marketing strategy. It's to dare to return to the fundamentals. Does life have meaning? If it doesn't, there's absolutely no point in living it. Especially not as a schizophrenic hypocrite, half Leninist ideologue about the unitary indistinguishability of human animals and half feel-good delusionary about the transcendence of crystals, Wicca, and Gaia. If your philosophy of life is an oxymornic lie, you don't have it right. The mission for those who believe in life is to remember that this is the central question of existence and endeavor to answer it in a way that revitalizes our society and our nation.
Told you I was suffering from post-election dementia. I'd bet dollars to donuts that Hugh Laurie is tickled to death by the election of Obama. Such is life. But maybe IP was suggesting to DailyPundit that such questions are more important to our nation's future than the political platform of the American Conservative Party. You'd have to ask IP about that.