Draft: House MD and the Effects of Self-Reliance

This was an undergraduate paper I wrote about House MD and couldn’t get out of my head. The entire essay is predicated only on the first few seasons, but I invite any and all comments. Maybe I will revive the subject in the future

The central character, Gregory House, of the ongoing television series, House MD, owes much of his and the show’s success by realizing the ideal person espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Self-Reliance. House, in his actions, his thoughts and even in cinematic style is portrayed as the independent, unencumbered man of Emerson’s essay, following his own direction and combating the forces that desire to control him. Despite this, however, House does not attain the fulfillment of Emerson’s self-reliant man. He does not have “peace” (Emerson, 282) that is the essential conclusion of Emerson’s work. He is a man devoid of happiness. He is tormented by addiction, loneliness, and physical infirmity. This conflict represents a somewhat ironic and, even more so, critical look at the nature of self-reliance in this new century.

Emerson’s positive image is upheld in many ways by Dr. House, a doctor who is repulsed by patients’ petty complaints and follows his true calling: the diagnosing of diseases. Unlike the doctors Foreman, Chase and Cameron, who work for him and his colleagues, Wilson and Cuddy, House rarely adheres to rules and willfully forces his doctors to flout convention.

Dr. House breaks every medical stereotype, defying the hospital’s protocol and challenging the Hippocratic oath. House rebels against the hospital’s “conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (Emerson, 261). Unkempt, rude to patients and irreverent, Dr. House’s prime motive is to solve the puzzle, even when he lacks the pieces to put the puzzle together. Such is the case when he tries to find the reason for a patient’s paralysis and nearly kills him a million times in search of an answer, which he only stumbles upon by chance (Meaning, 00:13:06*).

The result is perfection. House is able to have “that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within” (Emerson, 259) in order to solve the mystery and reach the diagnosis, an epiphany often actually choreographed by having House stare out into space (Skin Deep, 00:52:08). He often doesn’t get the answer right immediately, but through his own dogged persistence discovers it. And, ultimately, as Emerson suggests, his “genuine action will explain itself and will explain… [his] other genuine actions” (Emerson, 266). As his boss, Lisa Cuddy (Control, 01:55:01) and House’s colleagues often assert his methods are “good for him. He saved hundreds of lives!” (Babies & Bathwater, 02:47:13). Therefore, his unconventional attitude and risks to his patients are all for the greater good.

In fact, Dr. House follows many of Emerson’s tenets. He often reaches his epiphany by a “spontaneous impression” (Emerson, 259) as in one instance where House, while arguing with a child about how she has used a faulty syllogism by calling a bear a dog, realizes the cause of his patient’s disease (Merry Little Christmas, 03:50:15).

He acts with a childlike obstinacy, (Emerson, 261) unencumbered by consequence. This is established from the first episode onward, when to figure out the diagnosis of a particular patient, he has no qualms in simply cutting off her treatment, which could cause death or irreparable damage (Pilot, 06:15:08).

Most importantly to the argument of self-reliance, Dr. House takes “himself for better, for worse, as his portion”. (Emerson, 259) His constant assertion that he needs to take drugs can be interpreted as self-recognition and a means of dealing with both his pain and who he is (Detox, 07:37:21).

House’s self-reliance is also partially defined by his relationship to freedom. House has no restraints when dealing with patients, breaching the rules of ethics, society or even law in order to solve a case. In the first episode, House admits he hired Doctor Foreman because he had a criminal record and could be used to break into patients’ houses (Pilot, 10:41:21).

House’s self-reliance works in conjunction with Eric Foner’s concept of freedom in The Story of American Freedom. House is a perfect model for the desire of negative liberty or “the absence of external obstacles to the fulfillment of one’s dreams” (Foner, 260). House has no regards for hospital regulations. He frequently tries to negotiate ways around them and his clinic hours that contractually he is obligated to do, in order to resume his weekly diagnostic challenge.

Furthermore, Dr. House is presented, shot by shot, as the focus of each episode, independent of his contemporaries and even the hospital itself. In a scene from the first episode of the second season, it is easy to discern the focus on House as he converses with his associates. The shots, relatively speaking, are very close up, framing House’s upper torso and head (Acceptance, 12:48:20**). The shot then moves to his colleagues in a similar motion, but then, just as quickly, frames House again. In fact, many times throughout the show, House fills the entire frame by himself. The only instances he is not the sole figure occupying the frame is when other characters meet him, are walking with him, talking about him, or performing procedures he has ordered.

The editing works to show House as independent from his peers. While in other shows, shots are often of groups of doctors together, or of the hospital itself (ER being a particularly poignant example), Dr. House instead is the primary reason for the show while secondary characters recede into the background. Visually, it also frees him from the hospital, further supporting the concept of negative liberty.

At the same time, the show’s writers have expanded little on the lives of the supporting characters. Foreman’s loneliness (One Day, One Room, 21:27:17), Cameron’s dead husband (Fidelity, 24:58:24), Wilson’s failed relationships (Finding Judas, 26:50:28), and Chase’s relationship to his father (Cursed, 28:56:02) and even House’s mild flirtation with Cameron which lasted only a few episodes before she “jumped on the bandwagon” and expressed dislike for him (Acceptance, 31:28:14) are glossed over so the show can focus completely on Dr. House. This is his world, his game, his rules.

The show also works on a formula that presents Dr. House as constantly renewing himself, approaching each case as if it were his first. By presenting a new case practically each episode, House seems to be living “ever in a new day” (Emerson, 265) approaching the cases with no connection to past mistakes, few that there have been, and following a blueprint from which he can produce his genius diagnoses.

The conflict between Dr. House and Emerson lies in how Emerson interprets the consequences of self-reliance. Emerson somewhat accurately categorizes House’s relationship to his work, when he says, “a man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work… but what he has said or done otherwise, shall give him no peace” (Emerson, 260). In fact, Dr. House seems to be completely obsessed with his work, forgoing sleep and distractions in search of an answer (The Socratic Method, 33:10:11).

But House is not completely happy when he works. He has become violent when susceptible to losing his painkiller, Vicodin, (Finding Judas, 35:18:29) and simply ceasing work in his quest to get a fix. He steals drugs off a dead body (Merry Little Christmas, 36:13:26), negotiates with fellow physicians to get drugs (37:34:01) and has admitted to offending his colleagues and friends while high (Words and Deeds, 39:43:07). Neither satisfaction in his work, nor legal travails discourage House’s drug use. Emerson might argue that these are merely “impulses” from “below” (Emerson, 262). House is still being self-reliant, but he seems at very least dependent on his drugs.

Emerson asserts that the “soul raised over passion beholds identity and eternal caution, perceives the self-existence of Truth and Right, and calms itself with knowledge that all things go well” (Emerson, 271). But House lives in a constant depression, only happy for the short period in the third season when he retains use of his leg, but otherwise he both mocks and decries his disability even to his patients (Insensitive, 40:50:05).

House while being self-reliant, cannot remain completely free from his past. House cannot admit to his physical weakness and, therefore, must rely on a drug. This sad truth colors the series as much as his self-reliance, so much so that only a few of the nearly sixty episodes have ever shown House without popping Vicodin and searching for pills hidden in hollowed-out books (Finding Judas, 42:22:11), all behaviors of a junkie, perhaps the least self-reliant person.

But the conflict is even deeper. We can use Emerson to view House’s self- reliance alternatively. Emerson admits that it demands “something godlike in him [a person] who has to cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster” (Emerson, 274). Perhaps House is obsessed merely with his own failings. Maybe the Vicodin, rather than just the drug of choice for an addict, is a form of self-medication that allows House to pursue his profession. When questioned about his addiction or the pain in his leg, House’s answers are often introspective, rather than railing at society at large. For House his actions are due to a pain that “suck[s] the life force” out of him (Words and Deeds, 44:28:02). As Eric Foner distinguishes in his book on freedom, House’s desire to be free of his physical problems is self-serving. If he conformed to conventional norms, he might take pity on himself. The pain needs to be managed so he can pursue his calling. In this way, House instead of merely embracing negative liberty follows Foner’s positive liberty, “an inner state, not a form of social organization of public policy” (Foner, 261). House rejects both the rules of society and his own physical pain to work. He remains oddly self-reliant, albeit aided and abetted by his drug addiction.

In this way, House’s creators have complicated Emerson’s original message. They have fashioned a show about a self-reliant man who defies convention and succeeds because of it. But for him, the self-reliance is deficient. He needs to detach himself physically with drugs and emotionally from all those around him in order to pursue his calling. House, MD throughout its three seasons has begged the question, what if Dr. House simply was not Dr. House? Not drug addicted or obsessed with being handicapped, could he be even more of a genius? Could he be something greater? In a modern age where perhaps self-reliance has lost ground to globalization where everyone is interconnected and dependent on each other, one has to question how beneficial this form of exclusionary genius is.

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