As a kid, I loved patriotic spectacle: Fourth of July fireworks with Sousa marches blaring in the background, old battlefields with cannons and muskets and re-enactors, traipsing through the houses of the Founding Fathers with tour guides who got misty-eyed at the farsighted wisdom of the Grand Old Men. Today, these things make my skin crawl.
The essence of having a critical relationship to something is to separate simple emotions from more complicated ones, to think more critically about everything society passes on to you as received dogma, and detach oneself from collective opinion, at least long enough to ask: Is it true? Was it really like that? Does this make our lives better, finer, more humane? It isn’t to deny emotion, or fellow feeling, or the antique vestiges of our natural inclination to run happily with the herd. But rather, it requires that we be entirely sure that whatever we think and feel is absolutely particular and honest to ourselves.
I don’t believe in guilty pleasures, except of course for those that injure others. I do believe a lot of shame attaches to pleasure, and in the course of my life, a lot of shame has been attached to things, such as blustery patriotic displays that I found pleasurable when I was young. Which is why my guilty pleasure, indulged mainly in the summer when the tourist crowds are thicker and the art schedule in Washington slightly lighter, is a visit to Colonial Williamsburg. It is the sort of the thing that delighted me as a child, and the new, more theatrical, narrative presentation of history the park instituted some years ago — with actors in costume playing out a historically inspired set pieces that move from building to building — would have left me in ecstasies.
On one level I hate it. “Play your role in the Revolution,” the park’s promotional literature says. “Get caught up in the historical moments taking place all around you.” This is precisely what I will not do. But l like to wander the old, reconstructed main street, with its mix of real and refabricated Colonial buildings, its wide street with horse carriages — in which I will never ride — and feel the presence of the child who would have exhausted himself in delighted exploration of it all. I like to stand at the back of the crowd watching the blacksmith and the other workers in costume explaining the old ways of life, withholding all the questions I would have blurted out as a boy. How does the fire get so hot? Did they really make everything they needed in their own little town? Even the fine metalwork in the fancy houses?
Colonial Williamsburg isn’t fake, and it isn’t a theme park. It is, in fact, a fascinating study in the history of history itself, the way America in the 20th century reconstructed and preserved a vision of its Revolutionary and Colonial era. Its art museum also has a substantial collection, especially for anyone interested in folk art. Its reconstruction of old buildings has become a methodical exercise in archaeological and historical research. I can supply a litany of perfectly respectable reasons to visit, all to mask the real reason: That it is a journey into the past, not the past of America, but my past, and a dangerous one. It is like looking into a box of one’s old childhood toys, long forgotten in the attic, and feeling the visceral tug of old love. It hollows me out every time, especially when I see children who might have been me, and wonder who they will become.
So is this really a pleasure? It is certainly addictive, and I know it’s guilty, because I dread nothing more, while there, than running into someone I know.