“Pleasure with Pain for Leaven:” Blended Satisfaction

I’ve often pondered what Macgregor Mathers intended by the description “blended pleasure” as a pejorative for the emotional state shown in the 4 of Cups. I had to stop and think “Blended with what, and to what end?” The purpose of blending two things is usually to improve the quality of one or both of them, for example the fusion of scotch whiskies or the adding of water to bad wine. Here, although it still sounds innocuous, this “blending” bespeaks an irksome mingling of pleasure with pain, as if no satisfaction can be attained without at least a modicum of distress; they go “hand-in-glove” in conveying the idea of transitory contentment that is no longer absolute and may be on the decline. There is always a price to pay for gratification and, as the various sayings go, “There’s no free lunch;” “Pay the piper;” and “No pain, no gain.”

It’s not an expression one encounters in routine 21st Century discourse to describe a disheartening slump in peace of mind; we’re more apt to say someone is “down in the dumps” or “having a bad day,” not “his pleasure is certainly blended today!”  The phrasing seems very Victorian British (much like that other curiosity, “shortened force”) and is entirely too hesitant in its pessimism. Aleister Crowley was less circumspect in his opinion: “This tends to introduce the seeds of decay into the fruits of pleasure.” Mathers’ phrase strongly echoes but doesn’t quite embrace  the lines from the segment of Thomas Algernon Swinburne’s poem Atalanta in Calydon that begins “Before the beginning of years:”

“Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;”

To leaven means to lighten, the way baker’s yeast puffs up bread dough. The idea of “leavened pleasure”  implies that the pain somehow accelerates and sublimates the experience of physical enjoyment, suggesting the poetic tenet of “exquisite” suffering that purifies even as it excoriates its victim, but with the 4 of Cups it’s more likely to deliver commonplace misery. The “glass that ran” can only be the fourth chalice extended by the angelic hand, which the young man in the RWS version of the card does well to ignore. The notion of ennui or boredom for this card has been around since Etteilla, but Mathers took it up a notch into subdued dismay. The sulking individual looks mildly annoyed, as if thinking “Oh. no, not another one!”

As an extension of this assumption, the caveat could be made to fit the reversed expression of any of the other ostensibly favorable cards: the advantage conveyed by the upright meaning would be compromised by hobbling complications. Rather than contradicting the fortunate meaning, this would serve to shunt it into less salutary channels, tinging it with disappointment while still allowing it to manifest. In that way the normal meaning of a beneficial card remains intact but it is no longer unalloyed; the likelihood of an eventual  “call to account” enters the picture.

The 6 of Wands reversed could mean “blended victory” (as in a Pyrrhic triumph that costs more than it is worth); the 6 of Pentacles reversed might indicate “blended success” that portends onerous strings attached to an apparent windfall; the 6 of Cups reversed may imply “blended happiness,” or being unable to escape past difficulties that make the experience of current bliss bitter-sweet; the 9 of Cups invokes the idea of “blended comfort” as in the digestive upset or hangover that can accompany overindulgence. (Some of you may remember the old Alka-Seltzer commercial where a man’s stomach is scolding him: “I can’t believe you ate the whole thing!”); the 9 of Pentacles might convey “blended satisfaction” as in feeling the pinch of an expensive but too-tight pair of new shoes (and still wearing them to show off).

I think I’m going to add the concept of “mixed blessings” to my repertoire of reversed-card implications; take the “bad with the good” but also seek the “good in the bad.”

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