On Decadence


Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (1500-Present) is an intriguing work from an intriguing historian. Barzun examines many common threads over the past 500 years, weaving them into a tale of a society exploring themes in religion, government, art, literature, and technology that is really a prodigious book. I recommend it highly.

The decadence in the title – used to describe Western culture in the 20th century – has a very specific meaning in this book. It has to do when a society’s focus is spent, when it’s exhausted the potential of a single idea and it starts casting about for a new direction. Periods of decedance aren’t lazy periods – the same amount of energy that was brought to bear on, say, the rise of the nation-state or the Industrial Revolution is still present, but it’s diffuse, unfocused, unsure of its goal or purpose. These are chaotic periods, where things don’t make sense, where cultural themes are hard to detect because they’re still being formed.

Barzun makes the point, over and over, that decadent periods aren’t morally inferior somehow – but rather that they accomplish less than periods of building, not due to a lack of vigor, but a lack of focus. People are casting about. The energy of a culture is unharnessed, so while things happen, they aren’t necessarily lasting.

I feel that way a bit in WoW right now, like I’ve entered a period of decadence.

I bounce around from alt to alt at night, trying to find something that catches my fancy. Sometimes I level, mostly I don’t. Usually I PvP.

I was thinking about Barzun tonight as I struggled with PvP on various alts. My 24 Hunter, which is usually good for a faceroll, got focused by the other team – yet we still lost. My baby Shaman got steamrolled. My Warrior got a win in AV, but it was a dirty, nasty win, with a lot of deaths, /bg filled with racial slurs and a turtle in FWV. Druid lost, badly. Priest lost, badly. I logged into Cynderblock and figured I would start on Hallow’s End, only … it starts today in Europe, tomorrow in North America. Whoops.

So I cast about for inspiration, and decided to log into my dormant main, Cynwise.


It’s been a while. At first I was looking for heirlooms … maybe for the shaman, maybe for the baby gnome warrior. I went to the Argent Tournament to stare at the Heirloom vendor for a bit. I couldn’t make up my mind, so I went to kill cultists for a few badges. That wasn’t so bad.

So I checked the PvP pane, saw that Tol Barad was in progress, and decided, hey, it’s TB, how bad can it be?

I’m in Season 9 gear, many, many weeks into Season 10.

I got slaughtered.

I went 1:1 with folks and lost. I dotted up an AFK druid and only took her down to 1/2 health. I got killed on the way out. I got graveyard camped, so I stepped aside and went to put away the dishes. When I came back, the same guys were still there, teabagging my corpse. I was like, guys, you realize I don’t care, right? There are 6 of you and 1 of me, you have 2 healers, I’m in last season’s gear. I couldn’t kill an AFK druid, let alone multiple Conquest-geared PvPers.

That’s when I thought of Barzun’s book, and what I’d become.


I’d logged into 10 toons over the course of the night. Different projects, all of them, but mostly just casting about for somethig fun to do to make me feel better about a crappy day.

I used to comment that I could PvP as either Affliction OR Destruction, but not at the same time. It took me about 2 weeks of PvPing to switch specs and play at a high level, and I knew both those specs very well.

And here I was, PvPing on six different classes in the course of a night, expecting that I’d do well at any one of them. I’m getting by on being a good PvPer, not a good player of X class in PvP. There’s a big difference, and it’s starting to show.

I haven’t done much with Cynwise in 4.2 – maybe 2 bgs total – but I can’t remember the last time I felt so impotent with her.

Decadence has a price.

I sat there in Tol Barad after the campers left, thinking about the collapse of feudal monarchy, the rise of nationalism, and the existential crisis of a pure DPS player. About a newfound love of healing but a dislike of leveling. About character projects which succeeded, and projects which failed.

And I realized that I miss having the focus I had a year ago, but that I have little idea how to get it back.

That’s how decadence works, after all. In the absence of a clear new direction, you have to make it up as you go along.


Filed under Cynwise's Field Notes

4 responses to “On Decadence

  1. _Rades

    This reminds me a lot of the post Vid wrote a while back, about the practical purpose of playing your main even though he or she doesn’t actually need Valor Points or gear or whatever – simply to keep your skills sharp and your capability maxed. It’s definitely true, too. I know if I played my main relentlessly each day, I *would* become better and more adept. (I might also burn out on the character, but that’s a different matter.) Just recently I pushed Fabulor HARD to level him up to 84 before Brewfest ended, and basically only played him (Holy Paladin) for about a week, when I wasn’t raiding. After that, when I hopped back on my Disc Priest to heal a Baradin’s Hold, I was INCREDIBLY unfamiliar with the mechanics, keybinds, just everything. And that was only a week or so (albeit an incredibly intense week). It’s funny how quickly you lose that muscle memory and no-thought reaction speed.

  2. Redbeard

    Interesting premise, Cyn. I wonder if the period of decadence is a natural outgrowth of the breadth of choices, both in-game and out-of-game. In game, if you’ve accomplished your primary objectives enough times, that drive starts to wander and get stale. The application of external stimuli doesn’t do any good, other than to make you resentful. Out-of-game, as society’s focus splinters due to a lack of external stimuli –whether it be Cold War or whatnot– there isn’t a push to go in a specific direction. What ends up happening is that society ends up going in all directions, but to lesser effect.

  3. Mike Metcalf

    The last time I played WoW was in March of this year. My guild was falling apart and I was having a difficult time finding the motivation to join a new one. I wanted to do rated BGs, arenas, and maybe even an occasional raid. But it seemed like too much effort to re assimilate. It was around this time I started playing Starcraft 2 a little more. I played my placement matches and was put into Silver League. All of the sudden, I had burning desire to leave Silver and advance to Gold, and collect some cool portraits on the way. My period decadence was past and I had new goals that motivated me in ways I hadn’t experienced in months. What’s more, I didn’t have any sort of gear disadvantage for the time I spent away. I didn’t need to research class balance, respec, or regem. I didn’t need to rely on anyone else to mark my progress. My success was directly tied to my own effort. I’I’ve been tempted to come back to WoW a couple times. The allure of transmogrification has been especially enticing. But without an exciting, realistic goal, it’s difficult to find the motivation.

  4. CheersDaniel

    Dooooo eeeeeet.