When I need to remember what’s important in life—aside from the Presidential election, the disasterous state of world affairs, my impending descent into old age, and other momentous concerns—I go back to E. B. White, who often as not could turn from the mountain to the molehill in the blink of an eye, and convince you that it’s the molehill you need to think about.
So I have been reading in his collection of journal essays, One Man’s Meat, which being written between 1938 and 1942 often concern the troubling state of the world at the time. There in June, 1940, we find Mr White frustrated with the course of diplomacy and deciding that henceforth the democracies of the world must arm for offense, not defense: their armies “will be trained to attack today’s injustice, rather than repel tomorrow’s invasion.” At which point, Mr White interjects:
“Remind me to discuss the necessity for reviving the word piffle.”
Now as it turns out, I have heard the world ‘piffle’. Our daughter uses it to gently chastize one or another of her errant sons, whom she calls a ‘piffle-head’. I really should ask her what it means, but I have an inkling. It suggests a head stuffed with cotton, all fluffy without any form or direction. Or something like that.
But what did E. B. White mean by ‘piffle’? He writes:
Thought: Before democracy can become stable and perfect it must become arrogant and tough. The punky spots in the character of free men will have to be cut out before it is too late. It is as essential for this free country that its young men depise American piffle as that they despise European poison.
Voice: If they despise piffle, how can they earn their living?
Answer: How should I know? The important thing is to despise it.
So there you have it. Apparently E. B. White’s piffle is like my daughter’s, a ‘punky spot’ in the backbone, spirit, character, that needs to be cut out. He does not elaborate on the mysterious role of piffle in earning a living. I expect that it suggests a certain softness, a lack of seriousness, in our day-to-day lives. Which of course is inevitable, unless you actually mean to get something done, like defeating the tyrants who threaten the world.
Maybe we should look at the piffle in our own time.