The Journals of Denton Welch

by Denton Welch
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1500

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 love comes into your life, it cuts away from your work, so that if you laugh at it, almost despite it for what it is worth, yet long for it too, brood on the time when you had nothing else, when all you had to live on was what you made, when your thoughts were hotted up and sharp, for you dared not let them cool.

Although drawn to the company of others, Welch was unable to tolerate their presence for very long. The intimacy he brings to his autobiographical writings did not extend to the personal relationships about which he remained ambivalent and guarded. He needed “to have people near” but not so near as actually to have to “see” them. Thus, he feared the very relationships he craved and, except in the case of Eric Oliver and his longtime housekeeper, Evelyn Sinclair, could only indulge in them distantly and literarily.

This need for companionship coupled with his fearfulness about entering into any relationship that would infringe upon his dedication to his art may help account, however obliquely, for the striking style and pluralistic form of his journals. Here one finds descriptions, contemplative reflections, dialogues, poems, dreams, drafts of fiction, letters from his admirers, and even one telegram. The style of the journals is as striking as their form; it is paratactic and painterly (surprisingly so given that Welch’s paintings are not especially realistic in style or subject). “The view melting and consuming, changing and yet for ever” captures particularly well the pictorial quality of his writing and vision as well as the way in which Welch combines so successfully and, as if naturally, stasis and motion. In one brilliantly evocative image he manages to bring together the spatial and temporal dimensions of his world, or rather of his perception of that world. Equally noteworthy is Welch’s characteristically omnivorous use of details, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant. The trick, Welch believed, was to make each detail into a sign capable of articulating not only its own place in the larger scene but also its own immense significance; he discovered excitement in what others might consider the most trifling and tedious aspects of existence. (That Welch may well have thought of himself as one such insignificant detail—worthy of attention yet easily overlooked—seems obvious.)

One way in which Welch accomplishes this aim is by turning even the smallest event or most trifling remark or object into a play of associations—an imaginative act by which the past is not only conjured but savored and in this way reclaimed. The present dissolves as if cinematically into a series of recollections so startling and sudden in their appearance as to surprise the writer at least as much as they do his reader. It is not nostalgia which drives Welch back to the past; rather, it is the intensely felt need to put a stop to what he calls “the long, long everlasting going-on-ness of it all.” The endless “passing” and “repassing”—the interminable and for Welch intolerable wasting away of others and of oneself—is what he seeks to arrest in and by his art. He seeks this end, knowing he must fail, for the moment “can never be made again, only known in years afterwards.”

While it is true that Welch’s determination to recapture the past at times manifests itself in ways which seem to invite readers to dismiss him as either a Romantic anachronism or worse an effete and snobbish collector of antiques (he spent two months restoring a nineteenth century dollhouse, for example), there exists in this work a far different explanation, which does not so much cancel the first as exist side by side with it. Ultimately one discerns that Welch’s longing for permanence, of which his passion for antiques is but one example and hardly the most telling, is as deep and as self-reflective as it is pervasive. He saw a world truly made in his own broken image—a world “decaying,” “melting away,” “dissolving.” The intensity of that vision, which proves far too modern for anyone to dismiss as mere solipsism, compels the reader’s attention. So too do Welch’s efforts to arrest or at least to defy the entropic drift in one of the most ephemeral of literary forms, the journal.

Dated July 10, 1942, the first entry in the journals begins by assuming a place in a larger whole; his “And” implies the very continuity that the accident Welch had suffered seemed to deny (but a continuity that Welch’s paratactic style calls into question, suggesting, as parataxis inevitably does, progression without order, mass without memory). His last entry, dated August 31, 1948, runs for nearly six pages, some three thousand words. It begins “I want to write it all down”; it begins, that is, with Welch as obsessively omnivorous as ever. It ends in mid-sentence: “I wished I could be left alone to look about me. Even now, as I write, I.” It ends, that is, without ever quite concluding, with Welch’s “I” as unfinished as his sentence, just as determined as it is doomed, still doing what it can and must do: observing, writing, and in this way making so much out of seemingly so little, making, that is, a life in literature, a world of words.

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