(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Dame Edith Sitwell, one of his earliest admirers and champions, considered Welch “a born writer.” Maurice Cranston, on the other hand, though both an admirer and a friend, called him “a born solipsist,” and the critic C. E. M. Joad labeled him a decadent. Welch, however, saw himself as a monk dedicated to a single task, which was devotion not to God but to himself. The intense and often sensuous subjectivity of Welch’s writing (fiction and journals) is its most distinguishing and distinguished feature. World War II appears in the journals only rarely, the “I” almost always. This “I” exists at the very center of the world, and the journal exists at the center of its author’s attempt to reconstitute and preserve the self that the accident almost completely destroyed and quite literally unmanned (the impotency from which Welch occasionally suffered was one result of the accident). Especially striking is the fact that this “I” appears less as a participant in the events described than as a spectator or, more accurately, the presiding consciousness. What distinguishes Welch’s subjectivity from mere narcissism (and his gaze, from mere voyeurism) is his awareness of the way in which he manages to transform this limitation to his advantage—physically, psychologically, narratively, and epistemologically. “It is quite true,” he writes at one point, “that a general unwillingness to appreciate robs most people of their eyes, nose, mouth, ears, limbs. They are trunks of wood always repudiating. . . .” Welch’s journals are then as his life has become: an effort to overcome the immense repudiation that the accident has made it so easy for him not only to make but also to be. “Now I am alone here in the afternoon, with freezing mist outside, and nothing in me,” he writes. Welch’s preoccupation with his own subjectivity may most profitably be read as his attempt to fill the emptiness, the nothingness inside him, and, as corollary, to people the lonely landscape of his social and psychological worlds.

Awareness of the loneliness of the world without and the emptiness of the world within was the major effect of the accident and Welch’s subsequent disablement. The journals include surprisingly little about either Welch’s accident or his illness; they do, however, emphasize what might best be described as the metaphysical implications of both accident and infirmity: “I have the picture of myself draining away. The only thing that can withstand is the will, in its own weak, shabby, obstinate, joyless way.” Forced to live, paint, and write within his illness, he chooses to work against his condition, not so much to negate his bodily weakness as to transform it into an act of imagination and affirmation. Neither the transformation nor the affirmation comes easily or without its own risks. Even as he tries to avoid “whining or self-pitying words,” he realizes that he must also reject their opposite, “the dreadfulness of cheerful optimism,” in order to discover (or to create) something more enduring.

The search, however, invariably leads to doubt, especially self-doubt, about his writing in general and his journal in particular. These are, for Welch, both all and nothing. Even as he pours himself into his journal, turning to it for solace, he understands its inadequacy. He cannot help but write, but neither can he be satisfied with what he has written. Worse still, having chosen to live largely in a world of words, he realizes exactly how partial such an existence is:When your life has nothing left in it but your writing, then it grows so dear that even the badness is loved and groomed and cared for. But if real...

(The entire section is 1500 words.)