To Susanna Styron
May 15, 1972 Roxbury, CT
Beloved daughter O'Mine:
I've been planning to write you every day for a week or ten days now but all sorts of odd things have interfered. A couple of days ago I had to go down to Yale to hear a reading of my play. It went off fine. I thought (and Bob Brustein and others thought likewise); it made everyone laugh a lot, which is an excellent sign. It's going to be put on down there sometime late next fall and a director named Ed Sherin has taken on the job of directing. Among other things he directed The Great White Hope on Broadway, which I liked very much, and I like him too so I think we'll get along very well. Another thing that's occupied me is an interview I was asked to do with Daniel Ellsberg about the Pentagon Papers. A group in New York called the New Democratic Coalition is putting out a publication and it turns out that Ellsberg wanted me to be his interviewer. So I did, and found it a rather fascinating experience. Ellsberg is a real fanatic and that quality comes out in his every word. But he is also quite earnest, likable, open, and in many ways charming so I found the hours I spent with him quite enjoyable and rewarding. He thinks Nixon is practicing actual genocide in Vietnam — genocide which is quite on the scale of the Nazi orgy in Germany — and I must say that after the events of the past two or three weeks I am inclined to agree with him.
As for your existential "wrassling," I'm sure that I don't have to tell you that your pondering and wondering and troubling are only extensions of what people have been doing ever since they had the capability of thought, which is to say hundreds of thousands of years. Gods and the idea of a God were of course born out of just this troubled pondering, so it may or may not be a consolation to you that your intense wonder and turmoil about the meaning of the human condition is, in fact, a part of the human
condition — or at least as it is experienced by sensitive and questing souls like yourself (no joke). It may just be that there is no reason or purpose to existence. Many great men — thinkers and artists — have thought this to be true, yet have not despaired over this assumption but have created great work through their very vision of mankind enduring triumphant over the sheer purposelessness of the universe, and in spite of the bleak and soulless aspect it so often presents. The whole concept of tragedy is of course embodied in this notion.
But I've often had the feeling that the existential dilemma is a very subjective matter, entirely depending upon the individual and the circumstances of his life, and that we "Western intellectuals" with our wrenched and tormented psyches have often imposed the need to find a purpose which may be in the end only an exercise in masochism. A fisherman in the Arabian Gulf finds purpose in life by fishing, a Wyoming shepherder by tending his sheep and remaining close to Nature that big sky. On a somewhat higher level intellectually; a person like James Joyce, a profoundly pessimistic man at bottom, could find reason and purpose through these moments of termed "epiphanies," — instances of intense revelation (through love, or a glimpse of transcendental beauty in the natural world) which gave such a sense of joy and self- realization that they justified and, in effect, ratified the existence of him who experienced
them. In other words, the existential anguish becomes undone; through moments of aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment we find the very reason for existence. The creative act in art often approaches this, but it can work on humbler levels as well. If you'll pardon my pointing to my own work, I think I tried to render this quality of revelation — "epiphany" in a part of Nat Turner. I'm thinking of the passage beginning on p. 119 of the Random House edition (you may want to re- read it) where Nat as a little boy is waiting on the table during a spring evening and experiences the combined ecstasy of (a) being alive and healthy in the springtime, (b) being appreciated as a human being, and (c) being given some marvelous unspoken
promise about the future. For him at this moment all these things were enough. Existence and its joys justify everything and remain sufficient.
All the foregoing is of course ridiculously crude, off- hand and sketchy. What you have brought up has been the subject of the life- work of dozens of bearded old professors from Uppsala to Yale. But they are at least honest observations and they may give you a few hints about what your old dad
has thought from time to time.
I certainly miss you very much and for that selfish reason am happy as I can be that you are going to Yale, despite your rather gloomy observations about the place. At this point I really wouldn't have too many dread qualms about Yale. You are certainly the most beautiful, and vigorously independent person I know and I fully respect your desire to keep that independence intact but I honestly think you exaggerate your fears of a threat to your continued operation as a free spirit. In any case, try not to fret over it.
Also, do drive that lovely new car of yours carefully, especially this summer when the Latin people get their customary madness on the highway. I'll talk over Andy's scholarship problems with your Ma. As for the typewriter, I'd be glad to send you the money for it. How much?
Best love from
From Selected Letters of William Styron edited by Rose Styron with R. Blakeslee Gilpin. Copyright 2012 by Rose Styron. Excerpted by permission of Random House.