The mirror of the manatee

In today’s Wayno/Piraro Bizarro — Wayno’s title: “The Mammal in the Mirror” (a play on the song title “Man in the Mirror”) — a manatee primps at his vanity, yielding the vanity + manatee portmanteau vanatee, and crossing genders as well as words (masculine manatee — “Man in the Mirror”, addressing himself as handsome, bristly body — at a conventionally highly feminine item of furniture, a vanity table, for applying makeup in the bedroom):

(#1) (If you’re puzzled by the odd symbols in the cartoon — Dan Piraro says there are 4 in this strip — see this Page.)

I’ll start with the two contributors to the portmanteau and follow them where they lead, which is many surprising places.

(On the song, from Wikipedia:

“Man in the Mirror” is a song recorded by [AZ: talking about crossing gender lines!] American singer-songwriter Michael Jackson, with lyrics and music by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, and produced by Jackson and Quincy Jones. It was released on February 6, 1988 as the fourth single from his seventh solo album, Bad (1987).)

Manatees. From my 3/26/15 posting “Marine mammals”, about a Sandra Boynton drawing for Manatee Appreciation Day (March 25th):

From Wikipedia:

Manatees (family Trichechidae, genus Trichechus) are large, fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous marine mammals sometimes known as sea cows. There are three accepted living species of Trichechidae, representing three of the four living species in the order Sirenia: the Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis), the West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) [AZ: the species in south Florida], and the West African manatee (Trichechus senegalensis).

[Poetic digression. The Wikipedia entry contains a lovely bit of found poetry, a double dactyl:

fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous: metrically SWW SWR SWW SWW (where R notates a rest beat)

— which I’ve worked into a doubly-dactylic, slow-moving tercet to celebrate Trichechus manatus:

Fully aquatic, mostly herbivorous —
Food for the manatee: sea grass in Florida —
Gentle and curious lover of warmth

More on poetic form later.]

Vanities. The NOAD entry for vanity, almost all of which turns out to be relevant, though sense 3a is the one in the portmanteau in #1:

noun vanity:  1 [a] excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements: it flattered his vanity to think I was in love with him | the personal vanities and ambitions of politicians. [b] [as modifier] denoting a person or company that publishes works at the author’s expense: a vanity press. 2 the quality of being worthless or futile: the vanity of human wishes. 3 [a] North American a dressing table. [b] US a bathroom unit consisting of a washbasin typically set into a counter with a cabinet beneath.

In OED2 (from long ago, but with recent relevant modifications): sense 3a, the bedroom sense (furniture almost entirely used by women, plus men who put on extensive makeup, like drag queens or male dancers in stage shows) (1st cite 1937), is treated as a beheading of vanity table (itself with 1st cite 1936); and sense 3b, the (unisex) bathroom sense (1st cite 1967), is treated as a beheading of vanity unit (itself with 1st cite 1973) (vanity unit is almost surely a semi-technical commercial term and seems to be little used outside of the furniture business).

Furniture ads seem to use vanity table (or its beheaded derivative vanity) for 3a and bathroom vanity for 3b.

Cruising the furniture ads for vanity tables, as I felt obliged to do for this posting, unearths some truly wonderful vanities, including this, oh honey!, apotheosis of elegance, the Zelda Vanity Table from Devon & Devon (an Italian luxury interior-design brand):

(#2) Ad copy for this Art Deco-tinged delight: It pays homage to unconventional femininity and irresistible charisma of the author’s wife and muse of “The Great Gatsby”, this vanity table revisits the classic bedroom dresser in a contemporary vein. Being bordered with sinuous lines and rounded shapes, which culminate in the wide circumference of the large diamond mirror, it has lacquered wood doors and drawers available in three colours, brass legs and marble top. Between the two drawers there is a pull-out top covered with velvet.

Don’t leap too fast to order: this pink, gold, and white extravagance will set you back €8,948.25 (excluding tax and shipping, not to mention upgrades on some elements).

The mirror. The mirror is a crucial feature of the vanity. The mirror is also an artistic symbol of vanity, in two senses: the vanity of excessive self-regard, as in the figure of Narcissus (in love with his reflection); and the more prosaic vain woman primping before her mirror, with the mirror showing the ravages of time and conveying that “all is vanity”, life is futile, also serving as a reminder that we will all die: memento mori.

On the latter, darker, symbolism, from my 9/13/20 posting “Mid-autumn memento mori for the times”:

[Still lifes] typically feature flowers and/or foodstuffs (though the genre has been stretched wildly). Then from Wikipedia on still lifes … :

Especially popular in this period [in the 17th century] were vanitas paintings, in which sumptuous arrangements of fruit and flowers, books, statuettes, vases, coins, jewelry, paintings, musical and scientific instruments, military insignia, fine silver and crystal, were accompanied by symbolic reminders of life’s impermanence. Additionally, a skull, an hourglass or pocket watch, a candle burning down or a book with pages turning, would serve as a moralizing message on the ephemerality of sensory pleasures. [AZ: or a mirror, in which you can observe the ravages of time] Often some of the fruits and flowers themselves would be shown starting to spoil or fade to emphasize the same point.

Vanitas paintings convey the memento mori theme. From Wikipedia:

Memento mori (Latin ‘remember that you [have to] die’) is an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. The expression memento mori developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

Consider this memento mori still life of a skull, a mirror, a globe, books, musical instruments and other objects on a draped table top (from the MutualArt auction site):

(#3) Painting from the circle of Pieter van Roestraten (lived c1631 – 1700)

And then, more recently and more spectacularly, this vanitas drawing with an actual vanity table (with mirror, of course), from the Illusions Index site on “All Is Vanity”:

(#4) Basic information from the site: The All Is Vanity Ambiguous Figure was created by the American illustrator Charles Allan Gilbert (1873 – 1929) in 1892. The figure can be seen as a woman looking at her reflection in a mirror, or a skull (Oliva, 2013). [It] belongs in a large class of illusions where a two-dimensional figure, or three-dimensional object can be seen in two or more sharply distinct ways

Further note on poetic form. On how manatee and vanity sometimes count as the same in poetry and sometimes count as different. It all depends on the context.

Poetic accent (notated by S and W, as in the doubly-dactylic lines above; organized into feet, notated by spacing, above) is distinct from, though obviously related to, word accent in speech (in English, with at least three distinctive levels: primary ʹ, secondary `, and unaccented ˘). In word accent, manatee and vanity have distinct patterns: ʹ ˘ ` vs. ʹ ˘ ˘. And this difference shows up in segmental phonetics: the intervocalic t of manatee is realized as a (voiceless) aspirated stop, because it precedes an accented syllable; but the intervocalic t of vanity is realized, for most American speakers, as a voiced tap (often called a “flap”), identical to the d of comedy, because it precedes an unaccented syllable.

But in poetic accent, the final syllable of manatee can count as either W (as in the dactylic verse above, in the line Food for the manatee: sea grass in Florida — SWW SWW SWW SWW), because it’s less accented than the first syllable; or as S (as in the iambic tetrameter — WS WS WS WS — lines The manatee is soft and sweet, it eats the grass that grows down South (my invention), because it has some accent).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: