Robert Hughes “Things I Didn’t Know”–an autobiography

I loved it, enjoyed it in fact more than I did The Fatal Shore. It is monumentally digressive, but I really didn’t mind those journeys – and they are relevant to the man/the voice that emerges so strongly. It seems there was to be a sequel, but that won’t be now, of course. And maybe it’s a generational thing – Hughes was born just five years before me – but I rather agree with what he has to say about the hippies and the 60s.

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A wartime childhood.

This review is a really good starting point.

‘Of course I am completely an elitist, in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense’, asserts Hughes in characteristically combative style:

I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness.  I love the spectacle of skill … I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. … Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights.  I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this.  I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today.

So begins a memoir in which Hughes’ prime objective is to explore the extent to which his Australianness is the most important thing about him, or only one attribute in an evolving life.  He begins with his elite origins, the grandson of the first lord mayor of Sydney, and the son of a successful lawyer and war hero.  His older brother was a lawyer who went on to be Attorney-General. Growing up in the Sydney of the 1940s and 1950s the young Hughes did not ‘talk Australian’ and was singled out as a ‘pom’ by bullies at the tough Jesuit boarding school he attended. Coming to terms with the strict Catholicism and conservatism of his upbringing is another theme that recurs throughout the book…

…a chapter on London in the sixties which is both entertaining for Hughes’ usually disparaging  thumbnail portraits of leading lights of the underground (Timothy Leary was ‘a coarse, middle-aged Irish whiskey priest’; Jerry Rubin ‘a semi-educated liar with invincible self-esteem, the attention span of a flea, and a disgustingly inflated ego to match’) and disturbing for his account of the disaster of his first marriage to a woman he portrays as emotionally out of control and self-obsessed, who apparently slept with just about every counterculture icon in London at the time.  She was so promiscuous that Hughes believes that Eldridge Cleaver was one of the ‘few male radical celebs with whom, in 1968 and ’69, she had not had sex’.  The role call included Jimi Hendrix,  from whom as a consequence Hughes acquired a case of the clap. ‘I was a cuckold going cuckoo’, he laments, describing at one point how he comforted his wife after her return to their home and young child from one of her regular debauches.  Stroking her hair, he encountered ‘a crusty patch of some stranger’s dried semen’…

Following reviewers through Google I came upon this:

… his first wife, Danne, a hippy dingbat to whom he injudiciously hooked himself during the Sixties. She was, he announces, a ‘white witch’ and living with her was like cohabiting with ‘a deranged alley cat’. Luckily, Danne cannot sue: having converted to lesbianism, she died – grossly overweight, as Hughes ungallantly notes – in 2003. Their only child, a son called Danton, had ‘gassed himself with carbon monoxide from his car in his far older lover’s house’ the year before.

That is all Hughes says about this particular loss, which must have been tragic and tormenting, and the obliquity reveals a blind spot in his character and in his book. He is confessional, having been trained to blurt out his squalid carnal misdemeanours to a priest, but he is rarely confidential. After he has vented his grievance against ingrate Australia, his memoir becomes frustratingly impersonal. He snarls at poseurs like Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons, whom he has often lambasted before; he fills reams of paper with essays on Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca that read like extracts salvaged from books he never wrote; he doggedly retraverses his early Italian travels and limply describes Porto Ercole as ‘a huge living postcard’.

A memoir, however, should be more than an anthology of anecdotes or a digest of rankling grudges. ‘Know thyself’, the command of the Delphic oracle, is the autobiographer’s injunction. That self may be one of the very few things that the polymathic, uproariously eloquent Hughes does not know.

Urk!

Much to be preferred is Christopher Hitchens:

…And this is why I stress Hughes’s addiction to understatement. He describes the utter boredom and pointlessness of much of the crash-pad-and-hash life into which he plunged, and it is only his attempt to make light of the experience that shoves it into a piercingly sharp relief. Many people had narrow escapes from the Sixties, when relationships could be dropped and picked up as quickly as callow opinions or tabs of acid, but it was Hughes’s bad luck to form a kind of matrimony with a true drifter and dilettante (and evident sack-artist) who once gave him the very pox that she had caught from Jimi Hendrix. That could be a funny story at some remove: What makes it unfunny is her preference for hard drugs and needles over their only son, Danton Vidal Hughes. This boy later committed suicide. Hughes mentions the death almost as gruffly–and as briefly–as did Kipling in noting the passing of "my boy Jack" in Something of Myself.

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See also: Geoff Dyer, Aussie Brawler (NY TImes); Craig Sherborne, Some Things We Don’t Yet Know: Robert Hughes’s "Things I Didn’t Know"; Peter Craven, Time’s Arrow: An interview with Robert Hughes; Tim Flannery, The Naked Critic: Memories of Robert Hughes; and Fatal Shore author Robert Hughes dies at 74.

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Now I am going to look for Barcelona (2001), Goya (2004) and Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History (2011) in Wollongong Library!

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