Part of, yet apart from, a re-creation of the past
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, is a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. 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 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 I 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?
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.