Fragment #15: Paul Virilio on Howard Hughes

[In this extract from The Aesthetics of Disappearance, Paul Virilio describes movie mogul Howard Hughes’s reclusion in terms of stasis, a refusal of speed and movement, a denial of his previous obsession with flight and motion.]

The life of this billionaire seems made of two distinct parts, first a public existence, and then – from age 47 and from then on for 24 years – a hidden life. The first  part of Hughes’ life could pass for a programming of behaviour by dream and desire: he wanted to become the richest, the greatest aviator, the most important producer in the world, and he succeeded everywhere ostentatiously; overexposing his person, avid for publicity, for years he inundates the Western press with his image, with tales of his records or conquests of women.

Then, Howard Hughes disappears. He is in hiding until his death. The journalist James PHelan, who followed the billionaire’s whole career, wonders about him: “why did he allow himself to become a man who couldn’t stand being seen? What was he looking for beyond the simple desire for acquisition?”

Master of an incomparable fortune, of a considerable technical and industrial achievement, the only purpose of his wealth, finally, was to purchase total reclusion in a dark room where he lived nude, covered with bedsores, emaciated and destitute on a pallet. Phelan concludes: what Hughes was accumulating was not money, but power. […]

Destitute billionaire, Hughes’ only effort is to fake the speed of his destiny, to make his style of life a style of speed. He seems far more contemporary than Citizen Kane, emperor agonising in his museum palace, buried in the ruins of his material goods, the baroque abundance of his collections.

For Hughes, on the other hand, to be is not to inhabit; polytropos, like Homer’s Ulysses, not occupying only one place, he desires not to be identifiable, but especially to identify with nothing. “He is no one because he wants to be no one and to be no one you have to be everywhere and nowhere.” This taste for ubiquitous absence he’ll quench, first through his use of various technical media, in surpassing what was then the most prestigious speed record: the 14th of July, 1938, his Lockheed-Cyclone having flown around the world “in a great circular arc,” lands at Floyd Bennett Field where he had taken off on July 10th. Then he guides his plane into the hangar to the exact point he left from. It isn’t long before Hughes recognises that his desire for movement is only desire of inertia, desire to see arrive what is left behind.

Soon his only link to the world will be the telephone. Like Chateaubriand, he locks into a narrow space his life-long hopes. The rooms he wants to be in now are narrow and all alike, even if they are worlds apart. Not only does he thereby eliminate the impression of going from one place to another (as in the empty loop of the world record), but above all each place was such as he could have expected it to be. The windows were all shaded and the sunlight could no more penetrate these dark rooms than the unanticipated image of a different landscape.

Suppressing all uncertainty, Hughes could believe himself everywhere and nowhere, yesterday and tomorrow, since all points of reference to astronomical space or time were eliminated. At the foot of the bed where he was lying was, however, an artificial window, a movie screen. At the head there was a projector and alongside it, within reach, the controls that allowed him to project his films, always the same, eating indefinitely from the same plate.

We find here what we’ve always taken as a metaphor of vision, the Socratic myth of the cave (dark room), “where those (who have been first in everything) must be brought to their term, forcing them to face the light-giving source … to contemplate the real which is the invisible …”

Hughes wanted so much to be nowhere that he could no longer stand to be visible for others and if he supported, at great expense, a harem, he never went near his protegees, it was enough to know he had the power of going there and that the young women whose pictures he had were awaiting his arrival.

It was the same with his planes and cars, parked here and there, unused for years, exposed to the weather at sundry airports. He always bought the same model of Chevrolet because he thought this particular model was especially banal.

He treated his business like his women, maverick of politics, corruptor of the American government and the CIA, playing with the world, until finally he collapsed into states approximating sleep, then death.

In his absolute impatience to see arrive what is left, Hughes – who his fellow countrymen will end up calling a “mystic” – became a kind of technological monk, and there is very little difference between the dark room at the top of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas and the retreat to the desert of the ancient hermits in search of the Eternal.

Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance. New York: Semiotext, 1991.

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