As Much As You Can
by C. P. Cavafy
And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.
Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.
Before I write about this homiletic little poem, I must confess I am a hypocrite, having spent the past fifteen minutes degrading my life. First I read an analysis of the dress actress Rebel Wilson wore on Jay Leno. Next I watched an amusing video a friend sent called “How Women in France Burn Calories.” (It has nothing to do with smoking.) Finally, fully aware that I was dragging my life along, exposing it to daily silliness, and generally operating on the level of a single-celled slime mold, I thumbed through a fat tome of middle-aged hipster porn, the Anthropologie catalogue that arrived yesterday. It’s going to take some effort to lift my thoughts from such piffle onto a higher plane of consciousness.
(Effort exerted. Slightly higher plane of consciousness achieved.)
C.P. Cavafy’s poem “As Much As You Can” begins mid-conversation. We understand that the preceding exhortation—live the life you want, or perhaps follow your dreams—has been left out. That excision gives the poem its energy and elevates it from the stock sentiments of classroom posters and refrigerator magnets. Although the speaker is resigned to a less-than-splendid life, either his own or his companion’s, his appeal to a higher self has an air of urgency. I hear the same pleading in my own voice when I say to the kids, And if you can’t load the dishes in the dishwasher, at least rinse the crud off the plates. Maybe if I added at least try as much as you can, a phrase sympathetic to human shortcomings, I would have more success and fewer dishes.
It’s an arresting poem, a universal poem, a poem I wish I could put in a poem dispenser next to every drugstore magazine rack. Because who isn’t having a life different than the one they wanted? No one. No one in the history of the universe has lived without disappointment. To those who hate their cubicles, to those who feel lonely on weekends or tired or sick all the time, to those who partnered with the wrong person, to those whose talents are wasted or who’ve found their talents don’t amount to much after all, to those who couldn’t have the children they longed for or had troubled children, to those who had bad luck or bad karma or bad habits or a sour attitude, to those who lose a loved one—which is all of us—to those people Cavafy says, your life can still be beautiful, a shining thing, a treasure to guard.
Although the poem is built on a series of negatives, its message is not. What if each of us could imagine our life as luminescent and fragile as an opal, and we tried to protect it from those things that might smudge and shatter such a precious object? Gossip, celebrity obsession, Facebook addiction, delight or over-interest in whatever’s cruel, scandalous, petty, greedy, or grasping can all be present-day agents of degradation.
I could go on with how too much contact with the wrong things keeps us on the surface of life and stifles curiosity and gratitude, but that’s the Catholic in me, and I think Cavafy’s poem speaks the same without preaching. It’s the Catholic in me as well that translates “your life” as “your soul.” A more secular translation would be “your time.” Certainly “wasting your time” is our modern equivalent of “degrading your life.” Regardless, it’s a strange thing to separate “your life” from “you,” as strange a separation as Peter Pan from his own shadow. But thinking of ourselves as distinct from our lives or our souls or our time gives us a way of seeing and reflecting on what can’t be seen and what’s most important.
If we’re talking about our higher selves, we might turn to our American preacher of self-preservation, Henry David Thoreau. We’re all familiar with his thundering proclamation that that the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation, but here’s another one that has echoes in Cavafy:
“The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.”
Essayist and spiritual seeker Anne Lamott makes a related point in this wonderful essay.
Little can be gained for a trifler like me to discuss the language of a translated poem. Different versions, different words, slightly different meanings. For example, in the version I used, “too much contact with the world” sounds monkish, but in other versions those lines are rendered as “continuous restlessness and talk” and “hanging around and endlessly chattering.” The killjoy of advising against “the silliness of social events and parties,” can also be translated as “daily trivialities of your acquaintances” and “dreary humbug of familiars and fellowship.” See here and here for two other translations of this poem.
I left “As Much As You Can” at the drive-through of my bank. I figured people are stuck there waiting and might read the poem instead of checking their tweets or emails (as I do, as I did after I poem-elfed).
Constantine Petrou Cavafy is Greece’s most highly esteemed modern poet even though he lived only briefly in Greece. He was born in 1863 in Egypt to Greek parents, the youngest of nine children. After the death of his father, the family fell into poverty and moved to England. There he spent most of his childhood. More financial distress pulled the family to Greece, then back to Egypt, where Cavafy worked as a journalist and as a stockbroker. But the bulk of his professional life was spent at a government agency.
Cavafy was never famous in his lifetime and didn’t seem interested in pursuing recognition. He printed his poems in pamphlets which he distributed to his friends. His lack of interest in publication may have been because some of his poems dealt frankly with his homosexuality and erotic themes. He died at age seventy in 1933.
I first heard of Cavafy from poet Dara Wier, who I poem-elfed back in March. She very generously responded to my blog post about her poem “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors”:
And one more thing, the scene in the poem (which is not explicitly at all in the poem, I’m just telling you, why, cause it seems you want to know) is one of a couple listening to a man (who neither know very well) tell about being away in a place that ill-suited him, he did not appreciate (and circumstances are such that he ought to have), and, well, hated. He seemed as if he’d always hate everything and find everything always lacking. (see Cavafy’s poem: THE CITY) A shame.
Since then I keep coming across Cavafy everywhere. He seems to be a poet everyone’s read but me.
Even James Bond.
I came across this recitation by Sean Connery of the Cavafy poem “Ithaca.” (Ithaca is Greek hero Ulysses’ home, which he spent ten years trying to get back to after the Trojan Wars.) At first I thought it was funny to hear Connery’s chewy Scottish accent spit out Cavafy’s words. But soon I was transported. It’s beautiful, my heart still beats with it. Please watch it, let it color your day, your week, your life.
Or at least try as much as you can.