The mannequins of the Biltmore arrest my thoughts – a haunting appearance of shadows fading darker, existing less. They are ghosts standing lifeless in nearly every room, the fleeting something that was, clasping this world with apparitional bodies. Half of the mannequins are without a head, but, if there is a face, all the sundry details of expression have been scrubbed away by the lack-remorse pendulum of time. Even though yesterday is gone, folded back into the nonexistence of forever, the mannequins stand defiant. All their efforts will come to nothing, though. They are from nothing. Yesterday does not exist, just as tomorrow does not exist, yet.
The mannequins never will rematerialize back into this world. They are gone. And here they stand. Yesterday drifted away into history books and historical dramas, vestiges harbored in today’s crevasse: inexistence contingent upon the existent. So, the mannequins stand with a dishonest air of eternity, “Look at me and I am,” they say. Their shadows have more life than they do, drifting slowly from one corner of the room to the next as the sun passes through the window or when a spotlight is nudged by an errant foot or hand.
The mannequins are on temporary display as a part of the Biltmore’s exhibit Designed for Drama: Fashions from Classics. George Vanderbilt was a lover of literature, collecting near 22,000 books in his home. The mannequins display the costumes worn by actors and actresses from the films based on these books – garments worn by the movie stars of Sherlock Holms, Finding Neverland, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina. Many of the costumes were either nominated for or won an Academy Award for design. All of this is intriguing, but for me, they stand as ghosts.
I I arrive at the Biltmore house first thing on a Sunday morning. I am literally the first tourist here. Later in the day there will be long lines snaking through the house, but not right now. Except for the occasional employee, I walk through the corridors and bedrooms alone; I stand in front of a large indoor pool and underneath a spiraling staircase; I gaze into the faceless/headless ghosts of Biltmore. Time surrounds me like a waft of early morning fog hovering over the surface of a pond. Even the clocks on the walls are all stopped at exactly nine o’clock, which is near enough to the correct time, a sort of melding of past and present.
I think about things, I’m given to believe, that normal people don’t think about. These mannequin ghosts, made of fabrics and stuffed full of padding, machine made and dressed in high fashion, do they see me? Can they contemplate their situation? (I don’t mean anything like Night at the Museum – the exhibits coming to life at night because of magical Egyptian artifact, which sounds suspiciously like the plot of another Hollywood classic, Mannequin, where a mannequin, who is actually an ancient Egyptian, comes to life after the store closes.) Clearly the answer to that question is no.
I want to know why I am so drawn to them. What is it about the human form that resonates so deeply that I would even wonder such barmy thoughts? Is it another face on Mars? The Virgin Mary on toast? No, that’s not right. I’m not talking about the man on the moon or a bunny rabbit cloud. This isn’t pareidolia – an imaginary perception that doesn’t exist.
If I wanted to, I could slip past the railing, walk up to the mannequins, and touch them. They are real. They are in front of me. But this mad-man fantasy of mine, these ghosts of Biltmore, how real are they? How can I really know whether they see me? Is there any life at all in the room other than the fly on the window screen and my own?
I want to slide into the web of memory and time and existence. I want to know that yesterday really happened, that memories reflect something actual – that history isn’t an illusion created today, this moment, the now of the fiery latticework of dendrites and axons. Is my shadow more dynamic than I am? Does it have a will of its own? Do I still exist yesterday and the day before, or is that me another mannequin in another room I’ve already slipped through?
If life is defined as movement, change, growth, or development, the shadows of the mannequin ghosts are truly alive. Through their shadows the mannequins take on a form of life; they become something as real as the ancillary life they cast. Who we are to the others of this world and the next defines us in a paradoxical way: who we are is contingent on we are not, and this sense of identity emerges as much out of the souls around us as it does the hand of God. And if yesterday does not exist anymore and the me of that day is gone forever, the me today depends on what is not simply in order to be. The affinities of our identity pile up like grains of sand on a dune that will touch the stars and caress the face of God.
These thoughts I’m having, staring at the shadows of ghosts, are accidental thoughts. They sputter out of my mind, always moving away, as near gibberish departing for some heavenly realm where thought exist more fully and less confused. And the ghost on the wall, the shadowy form of the mannequin, which itself is just a form of humanity, resides in my mind as much on the wall. So I will carry it with me, contemplating through the shadows of ghosts the nature of my soul, which is all I’ve been doing anyway.