Things I Didn't Know

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

On May 30, 1999, the art critic Robert Hughes was returning from a fishing trip in Western Australia when the car he was driving was in a head-on collision with another vehicle on a remote stretch of the Great Northern Highway. By his own admission, Hughes remembers nothing of the crash itself and only fragments of its immediate aftermath. However, in the longer term, the crash was to change his life entirely.

To begin with, Hughes doubted that he would survive at all. His car had folded around him like “crude origami” and he was trapped, with many broken bones and internal injuries. Gasoline was escaping from the ruptured fuel tank. As luck would have it, an Aboriginal family came on the scene of the accident almost immediately, and through a startling piece of deduction, the father, Joey Fishhook, was able to contact the friend with whom Hughes had been fishing and initiate a rescue operation. Hughes’s friend, Danny O’Sullivan, arrived on the scene, bringing with him a former ambulance officer, Lorraine Lee, who tended the injured man. More people stopped, including Aborigines on their way to a dance; they formed a half-circle behind Hughes’s car and began an attempt to sing him back to life. One of them later claimed to have seen a spirit-being moving in the bush.

Hughes, meanwhile, between pleading with his friend O’Sullivan to shoot him if the car caught fire, was hallucinating. He notes that this was not an uplifting near-death experience but more a reflection of his preoccupations at that point in his life. He remembers seeing Death. “He was sitting at a desk, like a banker. He made no gesture, but he opened his mouth and I looked right down his throat, which distended to become a tunnel: the bocca d’inferno [hell’s mouth] of old Christian art.” Later, lying in a coma in the hospital, he imagined he was flying a small plane decorated in the style of Robert Rauschenberg, a favorite artist, and realized his job would be “semaphoring the message of American art from the second half of the twentieth century to peoples who had no reason to give a damn about it.” Most significantly, Hughes dreamed that he met Goya, about whom he had been failing to write a book, who contrived to heal Hughes’s swollen and infected leg.

During a slow recovery, Hughes was obliged to return to Australia for the protracted court case concerning the accident. Drugged and in pain, his dealings with a combative Australian press that regarded him as an elitist, something unacceptable to many in Australia’s allegedly egalitarian society, did not turn out well, and once again Hughes found himself questioning his ties to Australia, the country he had left when he was twenty-six. He realized that “I badly needed a settling of accounts,” a settling that resulted in Things I Didn’t Know: A Memoir.

The powerful opening chapter of this narrative sets the agenda for the memoir as a whole. Hughes’s relationship with his native country has always been an uneasy one. As a young man he traveled to England, having realized that he could never pursue his vocation as an art critic if he stayed in a country that had little interest in European art and very little of it available to view. For many years he has lived in the United States. He has written about the extermination of the Aborigines and made a television series critical of the cultural life of modern Australia. Still, had not Australia in some sense made him the man he is? To determine whether this might be so, Hughes reexamines his early years in Australia, before moving on to consider his time in London in the 1960’s.

On one hand, as he happily admits, Hughes is a cultural elitist though not a social elitist. He does not want to be content with second best: in painting, in writing, in any other branch of the arts. He admits to a strong distaste for populist kitsch and to a strong distaste for the notion that anything Australian must be somehow better than its counterpart elsewhere in the world. Hughes’s own early upbringing was lacking in cultural activity. He had the run of his father’s library, which contained mainly nonfiction. Modernist poetry and fiction he would encounter elsewhere although he read the Victorian poets at this stage. English novelist Charles Dickens and Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott, however, never really appealed to him, and he notes a preference, even now, for nonfiction. At boarding school, however, Hughes was fortunate to come into contact with teachers who had a wider cultural outlook, and thanks to them he became aware of European art and literature and was steered toward the debating society where...

(The entire section is 1909 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, nos. 19/20 (June 1-15, 2006): 4.

Commentary 122, no. 5 (December, 2006): 70-74.

Library Journal 131, no. 15 (September 15, 2006): 67-69.

The Nation 283, no. 9 (September 25, 2006): 40-42.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 1 (January 11, 2007): 40-42.

The New York Times 156 (December 1, 2006): E36.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (September 24, 2006): 14.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 22 (May 29, 2006): 45-46.