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.