In an episode of House, M.D., the almost always excellent Andre Bruagher plays a therapist who treats the almost always excellent, Hugh Laurie.
Laurie’s turn as House was, and remains, an entertaining ride. The show was, at its best, self aware, and even witty, providing an intelligent if inherently ridiculous premise. At its worst it fell victim to that absurd premise and a series of equally absurd ideas having to do primarily with the fiction that there is a correlation between genius and insanity.
This is an old idea that began to take on the current recognizable form during the 19th century when tortured artists were thought to be consumed from within, by a fire that burned so brightly and with such heat, that while it gave them inspiration, in the end it killed them. Tuberculosis was a disease and had nothing to do with inspiration, per se and Romantic narrative systems that created a set of coordinates in which talent and inspiration, and the price paid for both, were detached from the brutal socio-economic conditions of the era. The fiction was a product of both a genuine ignorance (versus deliberate obfuscation) but also a product of a dominant narrative system that defined poverty as part of a natural order.
The idea never really went away but it did fade until the period soon after 9/11 and the sudden growth of television shows featuring quasi or full-blown, high-functioning autistic geniuses.
In Numbers, the brilliant math genius doesn’t know how to speak with women (a recurring theme in these narrative systems) and is prone to episodes of crippling OCD which he “can’t control.”
In various other shows, “odd” high functioning autistics, unable to socialize “normally” none the less assist the “authorities” by providing extraordinary, “outside the box” solutions to complex problems. Their very “defects” are reconfigured as positive attributes and the “normal” types must learn to accommodate them as their “odd” behavior is the price paid by the dominant system for access to their “genius.”
Laurie’s Gregory House is probably the most successful of these fictions.
House’s “defect” is primarily down to an injury he received. An infarction in his leg resulted in a terrible scar, a debilitating limp, worse pain, and the pain has provided him with a pretext to develop an addiction to painkillers in the form of Vicodin.
There is also a deep symbolism in House having, with his omni-present cane, effectively, three legs. The most ancient of these characters is of course Oedipus who solves the ultimate mystery and pays the price for it. But in the formation of that narrative one must be aware of the riddle that he solves initially – the riddle of the sphinx – which is echoed by House’s cane.
The sphinx is the totemic animal of Hera whose name means, to throttle or choke. The sphinx asks, what crawls on four legs in the morning, walks on two in the afternoon, and three at night. Oedipus, no dummy if terminally stupid, answers correctly, – man.
What is buried in that is the double meaning of the phrase “the riddle of the sphinx.” The riddle is of course the cipher that the sphinx speaks but the other riddle, is what the sphinx conceals; that it exists to represent the power structure of the dominant narrative system which, even if temporarily defeated, will in the end be victorious. Oedipus of course ends his life blind and pursued by the furies transformed into an unperson.
And so to House, who is in pursuit of the answer to the riddle of existence, and ends, as an unperson.
Layered over and through that issue House is portrayed as a borderline, and at times full blown, sociopath if not a psychopath and a genius – one part Spock, one part Sherlock Holmes but potentially, likely to end up on a roof with a high-powered rifle (Oedipus never being addressed except by the omni-present cane and thus a cipher available to those “in the know” but covered by plausible deniability) and, a misanthrope who, assumes everyone always lies and that honesty, however brutal is morally superior to the falsities, half truths and outright lies that most people rely on both to hold themselves together and that they use to maintain social cohesion.
Like the other “savants” (a term no longer used) House cannot engage with women. While he cannot generally socialize with men either is true, but in all of these shows the autistic genius is always male and a case of arrested development in which, while aware of women and sexuality generally and female sexuality specifically (and prone to expressing “inappropriate” blunt comments on their anatomy and sexual wiles), they cannot act in what is generally thought of as an adult male manner.
The show often made use of this by creating a sophisticated meta-narrative in which the specifically undeniably attractive actors, were used as plot points in which House comments on their physical attractiveness. Olivia Wilde who played “Thirteen” (a name that we assume was a reference to the equally stunning Jerry Ryan who played Seven of Nine in Star Trek Voyager and whose striking physical presence was occasionally used as a plot device) was often the subject of House’s “honesty” and her beauty was openly discussed, which gave the show a sense of self awareness even as the meta-narrative was used to conceal.
In House’s case (sic) this means blunt flirtations governed by a combination of innuendo, crude commentary, and paying prostitutes for sex.
Eventually he develops a relationship with the director of the hospital (Lisa Edelstein) – Dr. Cuddy.
Inevitably the relationship fails and House drives a car into Cuddy’s home.
The action, while psychotic, is inevitable not only because the trajectory of the character was always heading towards something like that but, also because the straight jacket, and prefabricated template, made it inevitable. House had to act that way because the dominant narrative system demands “genius” be portrayed as compromised, and unable to function inside the system. The television autistic cannot be brilliant and socialized let alone brilliant, and not autistic.
Which brings us to House’s therapy session with Braugher.
Braugher offers House anti-depressants and they verbally fence over their efficacy with specific attention paid to House’s concern that the drugs will, as Braugher says, cut the connection between House’s ability to see things differently; to see things that “normal people” don’t see.
House makes the point that if van Gogh had been given such drugs he’d have been content to paint houses instead of Starry Night. Braugher counters that van Gogh would have been content to go on painting brilliantly just not from a room in an asylum. House counters the thrust and says that’s not knowable to which Braugher says he knows van Gogh would still have both of his ears and House surrenders and takes the drugs.
Needless to say, House is right. No one knows (though we really do know) but what we can be certain of, is the truth that the dominant system does not want to admit or even discuss. Vincent van Gogh was not “insane” because “sanity” is a fiction relative to what passed as “normal” in 19th century Europe.
The “normal” people were the ones building empires, enslaving millions, policing mass systems of subjugation, mass surveillance, exploitation, prostitution (with its coordinates of enforced narrative systems about “health” and the fictional connections between “health” and “morality”), and genocidal imperialism.
There was of course a wide spectrum in which one could be “normal” and for example, be part of the campaign to end the opium trade but that only proves the point; that there was an international opium trade and that it was used to create a set of coordinates within a narrative system of morality, health and power and that none of those coordinates were objectively true but were all contextualized by relationships of power and thus, elaborate fictions.
To create a narrative system in which van Gogh is “insane” means to either posit a contrary narrative defined as “normal” or it requires designating previously “normal” narratives as “insane” or all human action as “insane” or all of it as neither one or the other.
For example, while van Gogh is one of the focal points of the era, so to is Leon Rom, the possible model for Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz. Rom’s idea of sending a message of normalcy and authority was to display severed heads around his command post in “The Belgian Congo” and when asked about he said, that the natives did the same and so it was “normal” for him to do it as a sign of his power. And, more disturbing than the severed heads, is the fact that, within the narrative system of his world, Rom was not wrong. But that does not mean, it’s not immoral because his narrative system was a subcategory of the dominant narrative system – imperialism, which in turn renders the assertion of van Gogh’s “insanity” problematic at best.
That it was within the wider narrative system of imperialism which one could easily designate as “insane” forces us into a loop or logical cul de sac.
The dilemma of van Gogh then becomes what is our basis for “normal?” And from that we then have another dilemma which is that his paintings were produced within the narrative facts of who he was at the time and not a hypothetical “van Gogh” on anti-depressants.
The “logic” of House’s therapist is of course the logic of the Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex which includes but is not limited to, advertising revenue, and the salaries of the people who run the networks that own the production companies that hire the writers and directors who produce the shows that pay the salaries of the actors. The Pharmaceutical Industrial Complex is in turn part of a dominant narrative system that designates a binary reality in which “normal” is x and “not normal” is anything that is not x.
Therefore, House is not “normal” and it is precisely because he is not “normal” that he is a genius. That this is true is not the issue because while genius is rare and thus not average or “normal” in this context, or narrative system “not normal and a genius” demands also being abrasive if not ultimately dangerous. In other words, consumed from within by a heat that while able to produce brilliance will ultimately require confinement or death, or being transformed into an unperson.
In the case of House, he has to fake his own death. That he does it to assist his terminally ill friend is a sop to sentimentality, but it is also a footnote to the more important narrative trope of the “insane genius” who cannot participate in “normal society.”
This begs the question as to why the dominant narrative system cannot allow for being both a genius and socially successful. The answer is, in large part, to be found in the fact that the genius poses a threat to the status quo. The ability to perceive what is beneath the surface of most social interactions destabilizes hierarchies of authority. But more importantly, it has the ability to reveal the imposition of artificial hierarchies based not on ability but on power.
Power does not need to be genius only successful. From time to time the two combine but brilliance is not a requirement of power to be successful.
This truth, which is an imbalance that manifests as anxiety, is expressed in (among other places) Dylan’s highway 61 Revisited. God, absent but present, everywhere but nowhere, all powerful but in need of followers and obedience, appears (as a disembodied voice) and says, hey Abe go kill me a son. Abe/Dylan/Everyone who is not powerful, responds with, you must be putt’n me on, and God says, you can do what you want but Abe, the next time you see me com’n, you better run.
Needles to say, Abe gives in and asks where God wants this kill’n done.
This is a reflection of the sense that power is arbitrary but full of rules. Justice is thus also arbitrary and power is a question only of its tautology. Power is power because it is power. Nothing else matters. As Guy Debord has it in, The Society of the Spectacle, “What appears is good and what is good appears.” Thus “God” is transformed into the tautology of power, and power is transformed into the tautology of the dominant narrative system.
In such a system with narratives that conform and demand conformity, “normal” is a kind of placid existence that does not threaten anything. In such an environment, van Gogh continues to paint with the same sense of existential despair, the same passion, the same love, and contempt and sense of standing on the razor’s edge. But of course this is not just impossible it is blatantly contradictory. It requires the drugs to either be ineffective, allowing van Gogh to remain unchanged, or it requires him to be susceptible to a surgical cherry picking that removes, and amputates only those aspects of his personality of which the power structure does not approve. But it also requires the belief that those aspects are not essential to what we call his talent, which if true, a priori, eliminates the need for the drug.
What we know, and the only thing we can know, is that the gestalt of van Gogh was just that – a totality. In other words, if you want Born to Run then you are required to also accept the post industrial waste land, and the mad house that is the immigration and exodus of the Italian and Irish Catholics, which in turn requires accepting the totality or gestalt of 19th century Europe. Thus, Mr. Kurtz isn’t dead, he’s a pimp, running guns and whores in Jersey, and an admittedly self-described “manic-depressive” is here to tell us about it, and ourselves, because his genius is a gestalt and not a question of cherry picking.
This reveals the truth of the dominant narrative system. Its purpose is not to help van Gogh or House but to control them. The television show “House M.D.” is thus betrayed by its prefabricated limits, into revealing that its goal is to seduce the viewer into believing in the pale imitation of the genuine “maverick” the “trickster” and “anti-hero” who, ultimately either succumbs to being neutered or must vanish. The result being that the television show’s purpose is to neuter the viewer. To take the show at face value and critique it accordingly, is met with a response of, but it’s just entertainment. To take it as only entertainment is to ignore its impact. Or as the line goes in North Dallas Forty: When we say it’s just a game, you say it’s a business, and when we say it’s a business, you say it’s just a game.
Contrast this with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which the trickster, Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, disrupts the power of Nurse Rachid and is, in the end, both electro-shocked into compliance and then (mercy) killed by Chief Bromden. The difference being that McMurphy is shown to be defeated; broken and then killed. House in contrast, rides off into the infinite falsity of the television landscape. And in particular consider that the pivotal moment in Cuckoo’s Nest, is when McMurphy uses his “magic” (i.e., his imagination which then is itself transformed into an alternative language and narrative system with its own hierarchies) to invent the details of a baseball game which the “lunatics” believe is genuine. The true power of the genuine trickster is thus manifest and must be destroyed versus House, who in a sense has absolutely no authentic imagination and instead has a relentless, ruthless application of the facts and nothing but the facts which act as a simulacrum of imagination. McMurphy imagines in order to subvert and free, where House destroys what is imagined in order to prove. Thus House and “House, M.D.” are transformed into a sphinx who offers a riddle but is actually the riddle whose purpose is to fool the viewer into believing that both the show (a product) and the character (a simulacrum of the product), are on their side.
The wider purpose of this, is to create a narrative system in which real world examples of destructive sociopathic and psychopathic behavior are excused or justified and thus, carpet bombing civilians, torture, assassinations, coups, environmental genocide, industrial scale genocide, and wars, coups, counter coups, and systemic bigotry, misogyny, economic exploitation, and the socio-economic gulag, are all defined as policy decisions and not blatant examples of psychosis. House is allowed to offer cryptic and direct sarcasm of real world events and yet, in keeping with the standard templates of television’s narrative system, no one has any genuine political convictions or genuine, by which we mean authentic, existence in the world as we know it. They might, as Thirteen says, read The New Yorker, but so what?
As a result, the world goes missing.
The idea that the patient is terminally ill, that it is a plague vector; a patient Zero, potentially infecting everyone, is of course, disallowed.
If only House had been called in to diagnose America, and the system that created him.
Addendum: an interesting side note to the character, House, and his cane. Robert Sean Leonard, Dr. Wilson, has a large framed poster in his office. It is an advertising poster for, the Orson Wells’ film, A Touch of Evil, in which, Wells’ character, uses a cane similar to the one usually used by House. There is of course a touch of evil, and evil genius to House but Wells’ character is utterly corrupt, and dies a violent death. The connection would seem more of a meta-meta reference to nothing more significant than the writers and producers of the show making a joke for their own amusement and for anyone in the audience who notices the detail, or touch.
However, we speculate that the reference operates on at least two additional levels.
The first is that either Wells’ character is to be considered less evil than one assumes or more ambiguous than is supposed, or House is more sinister than his charm and latent and repressed decency allows. This iteration of House is less Frankenstein and more Dr. Moreau.
The second is that the reference to A Touch of Evil is a coded message – a message in a bottle that speaks to the production of the show within the larger system of television which in this context becomes a corrupt border town where none of the usual suspects can be trusted.