June 29, 1994|By A. ZOLAND LEISHEAR

In ''The Book of the Courtier,'' the Quattrocento's guide to right living, Balthasar Castiglione mentions that old men are always saying the world is getting worse. If this were so, he states, the world would have surely ended by now. Rather, he believes, this is a reflection of the diminution of powers over time, and reflects a nostalgia for a past when one was young and vigorous. If he were alive today I wonder if he would be so sure.

I have become somewhat jaded. It is not my natural state. I am tired and need a vacation. I listen to the news. The politicians are sniping. The cities are collaps-ing. The world is getting worse. I will go to Williamsburg. I will go to where America worked.

This time of year the Virginia landscape greens. Apple, jade and lime flow across the landscape liquid and translucent. The dogwoods luminesce in the tunnel of trees the road sails through. I notice my white knuckles on the steering wheel and relax. At Yorktown the landscape opens and I can breathe. But the next day at Williamsburg the magic is not there.

It is increasingly difficult to be wholly positive about anything. The deconstructionists are burying meaning as surely as Nietzsche buried God. This does not mean that either meaning or God are gone, it simply requires that to accept either, one must fly in the face of reason, of evidence, of psychological theory and current intellectual fashion.

We have been shown that these truths we hold as self-evident are not only not self-evident, but are neutral events upon which we cast whatever perspective may be governing us at the time. The handrails of the universe have been knocked aside and we are left on the stairway of the abyss wondering if even the steps beneath our feet are real.

I am in Williamsburg. When I was here last, I was filled with the wonder of the place, the depiction of colonial America, the re-creation of a time when America worked. Idealized and romanticized, yes, but accurate in spirit. I went home filled with the zeitgeist of that time: promise, hope, infinite possibility.

Now I am appalled at how many shops are selling things. Were they here before? Is this the point of Williamsburg -- to sell things? Rampant consumerism, here as everywhere else. I leave and go to Jamestown.

There are two Jamestowns. One is the reconstruction and the other is the island, the National Park. I choose the latter. There is no one here. There is nothing here but the Visitors Center, a monument and the foundations of some houses. It is quiet, even still. There is nothing to see but there is everything to feel.

I know the story. It is here that the first English came ashore. It is here that that dream of the new Eden, the second paradise, the American utopia began. I know the story. It is here that the English came and slaughtered the Indians, then institutionalized slavery and ravaged the land.

I do not go to the Visitors Center, I do not look at re-creations or models. I do not read the signs. Instead I walk out upon the island and listen to what the land will tell.

As I've said, I know the stories, I have brought them with me and now lay them across this neutral land. But I will become a blank slate; this place, an imaginarium. I begin to walk. It is about three ships and 109 men. They come ashore, full of preconceptions, misconceptions, high ideals and human folly.

Halfway round the island, I spot some deer, a doe and two fawns. I stop. They do not run. I call to her and she turns. Our eyes lock. She has been here forever. She is made of the blood of settlers and the decay of trees. It is very still here in the woods and my voice is disturbing.

We continue to gaze at one another and I feel that crack in the universe where wisdom sometimes oozes through. Were we to die, this doe and I, to die right here and rot with underbrush and trees, break down into our common parts, we would then recombine, be joined together. We would be one in something else. But even this is illusion, that we are separate now. Looking in her eyes, locked in consciousness, I see we are the same from the sub-atomic or the metaphysical; we are identical. It is just this middle ground, the land we call reality, that leads us to perceive a difference.

Ironically, I think, the real is the most illusory of all. It is just a tool to help us navigate, not the ship that carries us through. It is a function of our way of seeing. It is a product of our imagination.

In 1607, on a spring afternoon, 109 men from three ships disembark on a jut of shore in the James River. They were principled and misguided, full of preconceptions, misconceptions, high ideals and human folly. They killed Indians, institutionalized slavery, ravaged the land and created some of the finest documents ever written, documents that eventually began to redress the errors they so blindly committed. They were not unlike ourselves, not in flesh and bone or sub-atomic particles. They were the same.

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