Watching The Aviator, a film contrasting the multiple faces of Howard Hughes, I am reminded of a certain dark, humorous claim. The claim goes, "the only difference between madness and eccentricity is that the mad are poor and the eccentric are rich." The truth is, while the manifestation is often difficult to distinguish, there is often an overlooked, fundamental difference -- that being the difference between the loons who live outside any conceivable reality and the disturbed who obey sophisticated scripts and codes of behavior from a nightmare, a nightmare in which the sole exit door becomes increasingly difficult to open and, eventually, to even find.
To fully grasp this difference, one needs to examine why, and how, nightmares are highly prevalent among dreamers. The capacity to conceive and envision often seems to dominate wishes to steer such untethered freethought toward constructive endeavors. More tragically, those with seemingly unbounded motivation and drive are motivated and driven by the same fuel on which the monster of insanity feeds, the fuel of self-programming, of mental constructs, of illusions.
Many credit adrenaline and various chemicals and hormones coursing through our veins as the fuel which drives us. While such biological assistants no doubt play a role, their effects are temporary, and their potency limited. In contrast, the truly powerful fuel is one that irreversibly reshapes our very perception of reality. Such discrete alterations to the psyche are rare, but many people know of them, and call them epiphanies. The brilliant are often blessed, and cursed, with far more epiphanies, and at such rapidity as to knock the psyche about until it loses the concept of stability.
This state of uncentered flux is not ominous; it is often transient, a time when men and women rediscover their being and contemplate on a redefinition of themselves. While the majority of people may redefine themselves once, twice, or thrice, in their lifetime, a few seem to harness the power of a mind that has lost a stable center on which to crystallize new thoughts predictably. A mind not allowed to solidify will remain in the unstructured, malleable state; this is the state in which young children live, in which they will believe what is told, in which they are programmable.
Of course, an adult mind cannot remain completely unstructured; the harsh realities of life would devour someone who exhibited neotenies like naïveté or ignorance. This results in a subconscious agreement of sorts, an agreement to keep the mind naïve and programmable only to itself, while keeping the mind highly wary and skeptical of others. This protection that seeks to guard the susceptible kernel of a malleable mind can exhibit itself as paranoia, sometimes at the healthy levels of a shrewd businessman, and other times at unhealthy levels of delusional proportions, both witnessed in the portrayal of Howard Hughes.
The ability to program oneself is a very peculiar one. It is an ability to alter the will of the subconscious with the forethought of the conscious. It is an ability that can lead to greatness. Many who know of the effort, diligence, and zeal required to attain success would envy anyone who possessed the ability to muster with merely a thought those same attributes while simultaneously banishing the psychological impediments of hedonism, lethargy, and timidity.
However, gaining such ultimate governance over oneself comes at a terrible price. While attuned thoughts of achievement can propel the pliant mind into attaining lavish goals, morbid thoughts can just as forcibly subjugate the pliant mind into vulgar obedience. The surreal quality of starkly teetering between unprecedented success and unprecedented dementedness only further stokes a fascination with crossing the boundaries at each end. At a certain point, the descent into dementia takes its toll on attaining further success, and instead of teetering between the two, one is plummeted into severe dementia. A normal mind would have dissenting opinions from within when an extreme action is contemplated, not so with someone suffering dementia. The seriously ill mind is under the control of a tyrannous dictator who brooks no tolerance for dissent. Even the most peculiar thoughts must be obediently carried out, not by an army of peasants, but by a single servant, the ill individual.
Fortunately, Howard Hughes' predicament isn't as bleak. While rumors and speculations of his mind's unraveling were rampant on account of his reclusiveness, Hughes managed to keep his wits intact long enough to become the nation's wealthiest man by 1966. Unavoidably, his world-famous eccentricities seemed to have caught up with him near the end years of his life, a time when his hedonism prevailed and he forwent the responsibility of caring for his own body. The claims that Hughes stored his own urine in bottles lie unsubstantiated, but history has substantiated claims that Hughes stopped brushing his teeth until they all fell out, that he let his hair and fingernails grow to grotesque lengths, and that he developed an insatiable desire for candy and brothels as his mind began its final, dark descent.