While filming in Western Australia in May 1999, the critic Robert Hughes survived–barely–a head-on collision with another car. The details of the accident are obscure, but Hughes credits the disaster with having unblocked the book he had hoped to write on Francisco Goya, an artist in whom he had a long interest. As a high-school student in Sydney, he had even purchased a “poor second state” of one of Goya’s etchings–El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (“The sleep of reason produces monsters”)–from the dark series Los Caprichos. The print shows the artist asleep over his drawing table, with a wide-awake lynx as mascot, and the surrounding darkness filled with flying creatures–bats and owls–one of which offers him a brush. It was originally intended as a frontispiece to a portfolio of eighty etchings, which constitutes a sardonic and allegorical depiction of the moral and sexual monstrosities men and women turn into when reason dozes. For what it is worth, Goya finally chose a different self-portrait as frontispiece, in which, beneath a dandy’s hat, the artist wears an expression that his contemporaries read as satirical, contemptuous and in bad humor, which pretty much sums up Hughes’s sour attitude toward his homeland after the accident (“West Australian justice is to justice what West Australian culture is to culture”), which took place exactly two centuries after the first edition of Goya’s great work. His film, touted as a “frank opinionated look at Australia today,” was poorly received by the nation that had, until the smash-up and subsequent trial, considered Hughes a national hero. He is still, as far as I know, under indictment for reckless driving, though in fact he did go back when his only son, a sculptor, committed suicide in April 2002, at the age of 33. He has been through a terrible period of his life.

In his new book, Goya, Hughes says he frequently dreamt about the Spanish painter during his seven-month hospitalization, during which he underwent a dozen operations and experienced “more pain than I had imagined possible.” Goya himself appeared, one might say, as one of the monsters produced by the drug-induced sleep of reason while the critic was under intensive care. “In my dream narrative he was young and something of a street tough–a majo, dressed, I later realized, in the bullfighter’s jacket of his 1794-95 self-portrait. He had a gang of friends around him, scornful fellow majos, and they all judged me to be a ridiculous intruder, so far out of his depth as to be a clown.” I know the gang of toughs Hughes dreamt of. They appear in Caprichos, Plate 11, titled Muchachos al avio–“Boys getting ready”–and they are certainly up to no good. Goya shows them sitting on rocks under a bare tree, cutting plugs of contraband tobacco, with a coil of rope on the ground, handy for tying up victims. Goya painted such highwaymen stripping women, or robbing stagecoaches, with kneeling figures pleading for their lives. The muchachos were ace marksmen, like Goya himself.

“Boys getting ready,” as well as the portrait of the artist that Hughes hallucinated, was shown in 1989 in a wonderful exhibition called “Goya and the Spirit of Enlightenment,” with venues in Boston and New York, where Hughes must have seen it–his review appeared at the end of January of that year in Time. The self-portrait, with Goya wearing the torero jacket, almost puns on the exhibition’s title. The artist stands in front of an immense canvas like Velázquez, half-silhouetted against the light from his studio window. His unmistakable mug, with its snub nose, glowers at us from beneath the brim of a curious hat, which has candles clipped to the hatband (he liked to touch up his canvases at night). He presents himself as, literally, a bearer of light–an ilustrado. The Enlightenment is also highlighted in Caprichos, Plate 71, in which one of a small assembly of misshapen night creatures points to the night sky, and the caption reads Si amanece, nos vamos–“If they wake, we’re out of here!” Los Caprichos was what we would now call a wake-up call. It was not a great success.

Many of the work’s allusions, which we assume were clear to Goya’s contemporaries, are matters of scholarly speculation today, but there is also a universality, an all-too-human truth to the moral reality Goya satirized. Los Caprichos is a dialogue in oppressions, lived out between generations, between classes, between the sexes and, above all, between the Inquisition and the superstitious on whom it preyed. It must especially be these images that Hughes was recalling when he wrote in his 1989 review that “we see his face pressed to the glass of our terrible century, mouthing to make his warnings understood.” My sense is that he resolved to write a book about Goya that would help a modern audience grasp these messages, but getting to know what Goya actually meant turned out to be a greater challenge than he anticipated. It was, he now believes, only through the automobile accident and his “extreme pain, fear, and despair” that he was finally able to complete the task. “It may be that the writer who does not know fear, despair, and pain cannot fully know Goya.”

So far as Hughes’s life in these past few years allows itself to be fitted into the good news/bad news format, the good news is that the book is now here. “Perhaps,” Hughes writes philosophically, “if life is fully experienced, there is no waste.” It would be grotesque to say, however good the book, that it was worth the pain that made it finally possible. So how good a book is it? Are the muchachos right that the critic is so far out of his depth to have become a clown? Or was that just a tormenting dream-thought?

I do not know that it is possible to “fully know” Goya, however much one has suffered. But Hughes’s book probably brings us as close to this inscrutable artist as we are likely to get. “What was he ‘really’ like? We do not know and never will. No diaries, no letters, no self-disclosure: a seamless, expressionless, and polished mask that gives us virtually no grip on the paintings he made.” Beyond that, “the last half of his life was lived out under the shadow of a crippling disability…the dreadful and unconditional loneliness of the deaf man.” Inevitably, there is a thick accretion of myth, which Hughes has had to dismantle. There was, it turns out, no torrid romance between the artist and the Duchess of Alba, however Goya’s portrait of her, in which she points to “Solo Goya” written in the sand at her feet, is to be interpreted. The Naked Maja, popularly believed to be a portrait of her, is of a different woman altogether.

Nothing can be taken for granted with Goya’s work. Consider a painting of 1791, one of many designs Goya did for the royal tapestry looms. It shows four amused young women in prim lacy aprons, holding the corners of a cloth while tossing a straw dummy in the air at their whim. Hughes writes that it is “Goya’s acid comment on the power of women over men, and on what seemed to him the waning of traditional Spanish masculinity.” I see no independent evidence that masculinity was waning–just think of los muchachos. The power of women over men is a universal theme: In Los Caprichos, the same little smiles of erotic gratification reappear on the faces of courtesans pulling the guts out through the anus of plucked males, as tiny as chickens. Goya’s men and women re-enact the same comedies of sexual politics that still animate Sex and the City.

But Hughes is particularly good on the political reality of being a court painter in Goya’s time. “One of the abiding mysteries of Goya seems to be that so fiery a spirit…could ever have adapted not just occasionally but consistently, for more than forty years, to the conditions of working for the successive Bourbon courts.” It is exceedingly difficult, for example, for viewers today not to believe that Goya is winking at us from around the edges of his canvas, standing behind the family of Carlos IV in the famous portrait of 1800, as if enlisting our sympathy for the plight of the court painter, having to paint such ninnies. Few visitors to the Prado can forbear wondering how the artist was able to “get away with” showing the “royals” as so coarsely human. It is hard not to see the great painting as a piece of satire and social criticism, and in the spirit of Los Caprichos, done the year before. But “there isn’t the slightest evidence in the painting of any satirical intent,” Hughes writes, pointing out that “if it had contained any detectable barbs, Goya’s career as first painter portraitist would have been finished there and then.”

But this makes it almost impossible to imagine how the painting would have been seen two centuries ago. Or, for that matter, how anything by Goya would have been seen if the visual evidence is so dissonant with what we would suppose it to be, seeing the work as we do. This makes the body of Goya’s work an intelligence test for art critics. In my view, Hughes had to overcome his characteristic impulses as writer and move with a far more measured tread than that upon which his immense reputation as a writer has rested. I think that explains why the book was so hard for him to write. In his dream, Goya had fastened a prosthetic device to Hughes’s leg like an instrument of torture. “I had hoped to ‘capture’ Goya in writing, and he instead imprisoned me. My ignorant enthusiasm had dragged me into a trap from which there was no evident escape.”

Goya was an ilustrado in a world in desperate need of light. Part of his work cast light on victims of the dark–the insane, the tortured, the ignorant, the disenfranchised. That does not mean Goya had contempt for the monarchy, which took its privileges as underwritten by God. He was a patriot as well as a critic, and genuinely torn when the French, bearers of Enlightenment as well as of imperialist values, invaded Spain in 1808. In this, the Peninsular War resembles the war in Iraq today. Goya’s harrowing suite of etchings, Disastres de la guerra, unpublished in his lifetime, is unparalleled as a monument to inhumanity. Hughes has composed a picture of art and agony, and cleared away much that impedes our understanding of a great artist. However “modern,” Goya still escapes our grasp. Not all of the monstrosities that haunted his dreams haunt ours. Still, this is an impressive achievement.