Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Another Beckett essay (1 Viewer)

Jolly McJollyson

Senior Member
Mahood’s Riddle: What Never Speaks but Must Exist in Order to Speak?

In Beckett’s The Unnamable, the figure of Mahood represents the world of the mind, and conceptualizes an idealized, intellectual approach to the problem of naming that ultimately abuses, falsifies, obscures, and attempts to control the very language, or system of naming, it wishes to perfect. Mahood acts simultaneously as a part of the narrator and a separate entity, and speaks for, of, and through the narrator while constantly attempting to harness him with fixity and stability. By hounding the narrator with linguistic ideals such as wholeness of language, fixation of essence through naming, and having ones own unique voice, Mahood, rather a concept than an actual being, represents an elevated, intellectual system of naming de-legitimized by the attempt to force correspondence, and allows the text to further explore and explicate the binary opposition between labels and things that the first two sections of The Trilogy began developing. Through Mahood, the reader discovers the flaws and obstacles that make the attainment of these linguistic ideals impossible, but understanding Mahood alone reveals nothing; The Unnamable inextricably links the concepts he represents with those of his anti-thesis, Worm, and ties both figures to the narrator. Having scrutinized the “Mahood” approach to language, the reader can then decode the narrator of The Unnamable as language itself, opening the gateway to fully understanding the problem of naming as it appears in The Trilogy. From there, one can see the development of this problem further still, in the later work of Endgame.

The idea of “Mahood” language symbolizing the mental realm litters The Unnamable as the text constantly identifies him with the concepts of naming, abstract thought, knowledge, and idealism. These concepts, however, are continuously associated with the theme of domination. When speaking of those adhering to “Mahood” ideas, the narrator refers to the word “think” as “one of their words,” indicating a possessive and tyrannical approach to the issue of words and naming as well as that of thought (335). These figures of the mind prompt the narrator into “asking [him]self questions,” in order make him intellectual, in other words, to have him learn (334). As an incarnation of such knowledge and learning, “pupil Mahood,” recites the phrase, “man is a higher mammal,” associating the world of the mind with hierarchical notions of existence that place thinking man in an idealized, superior position to the rest of the world (337). When prompting the narrator to learn, then, the Mahood-ites attempt to force him to adhere to their own idealistic conception of existence. Also, the narrator mentions Mahood’s tendency “to note...certain things, perhaps I should say all things, so as to turn them to account, for his governance,” which not only aligns Mahood with intellectualism, but again intellectualism with a desire to manipulate and control (339). Mahood, by his very name, attempts self-definition, “mahood” denoting “my-hood,” or “my-ness,” the idea of drawing from an object itself a name that captures the essence of that object. However, Mahood’s wish to control the world by forcing upon it ideas of hierarchy belies the legitimacy of the idealistic “my-ness,” instead trying to saddle things with names that fix essence by brute domination. Through the attempt to force correspondence between words and concepts, Mahood ceases to be “my-hood” and becomes “my hood,” or that which covers and conceals the truth of non-correspondence.

Such attempts at hiding non-correspondence appear earlier in The Trilogy as well. In the Molloy section, Lousse, in whose house and garden Molloy stays for a long period, represents, like Mahood, the attitude intellectual, formal style takes towards naming. Molloy’s stay with Lousse is a stay in the figurative house of traditional, elevated language. Lousse, as a figure of domination, attempts to “mollify Molloy, with the result that [he] was nothing more than a lump of melting wax” (47). The elevated language of Lousse wishes to smooth Molloy over in an attempt to turn him into the seal with which she chooses to imprint him. Her ideal naming system conquers, melts, and reshapes the object into a constant display of its name. Because of her need for things to reflect the labels with which she saddles them, Lousse cannot stand it when names and things do not correspond; for example, she thinks of her dog, Teddy, “like a child” (33): pure, innocent, and young. However, she is on her way, when she meets Molloy, to have the dog euthanized because it is “old, blind, deaf, crippled with rheumatism and perpetually incontinent” (33). Because Teddy’s non-correspondence can no longer be ignored, Lousse must destroy and bury him. Her garden itself symbolizes control. There Lousse can decide which flowers stay and which are pulled, she holds dominion over names and things in the garden, and has it constantly cared for “in order to preserve [it] from apparent change” (52). Names in the garden and house of Lousse attempt to dominate both the wild and the horrific, forcing those uglier concepts to submit to the more pleasing label with which she binds them in the same way that Mahood attempts to force the world to submit to the controlling labels with which he binds it. Unlike Mahood, however, Lousse does not address the issue of intellectual education. Rather, she awaits the company of those who are already educated in order to mold them anew.

Similarly, the figure of Moll, from Malone Dies, symbolizes a formal approach to language and attempts to educate Macmann, the worldly figure. Moll leads Macmann to “[penetrate] the world of reading, thanks to the inflammatory letters which [she] brought and put into his hands,” effectually educating him (260). Moll’s efforts to teach Macmann language (naming) are efforts to make him like her, to “Moll-ify” him. Here, as with Mahood, the theme of mollification accompanies the ideas of education and naming, along with the attempt to pull the lower concepts of the world up to the higher realm of the mind, but, unlike Mahood, Moll de-legitimizes her language through eroticization, not domination. Moll’s approach to language, like Mahood’s, emphasizes the assignment of hierarchical order to concepts, made visible through her placing and tying “in chronological order” the letters with which she teaches Macmann language (260). Moll “inform Macmann, when he [does] something, if that thing [is] permitted or not, and similarly, when he remain inert, whether or not he [is] entitled to,” paralleling Mahood’s need for control (257). Moll thinks of her language as a savior figure, telling Macmann, “Christ is in my mouth,” but the literal tooth in her mouth, fashioned in the shape of the crucifix, is “loose” and “rotten” (263-4). As the gap between the reality and the ideal of Moll’s language widens, she “begin to smell” and vomit, and Moll rots along with her tooth-carved crucifix (264). By attempting to force her concept of naming and language onto Macmann, Moll succeeds only in destroying herself.

If Mahood, like his predecessors Lousse and Moll, represents the oppressive world of intellectualism and knowledge, then his polar opposite, Worm, represents the physical world. Worm is not only incapable of knowing “what he is, where he is, [and] what is happening,” he also “does not know there is anything to know” (346). Worm is the world without mind—without intellectualism—that Mahood wishes to intellectualize and control through language. Worm is “without voice or reason” but doesn’t “know it,” his only function is to “be Worm” (347). Completing the mental/physical binary, Worm exists as the “Anti-Mahood…. Inexpugnable” (346-7). Like the physical world, Worm is neither positive nor negative, but simply exists, unaware of anything. Worm’s existence, however, is “not for himself, [but] for others, others conceive him and say, Worm is, since we conceive him, as if there could be no being but being conceived,” reinforcing the idea that he is the physical world, which has no desires (346). These “others” who wish conceptualize Worm view him as “the truest possession, because the most unchanging,” and, through this view, uphold Mahood philosophies concerning forced conceptualization in conjunction with ideas of ownership and dominance (346). The Mahood-ites, through their language, wish to “lay hold of [Worm]…. For [his] transit, from darkness to light” (357). No bodily or worldly figure goes un-assailed by attempts at mollification in The Trilogy.

The true riddle of The Unnamable lies in the narrator, an incredibly complex and yet overwhelmingly simple incarnation of language, who constantly speaks of having “no language” of his own, a concept that seems, before careful examination, impossible and self-defeating (325). The idea of language without a language appears ludicrous, and even more so when the narrator asks himself, “is there a single word of mine in all I say? No, I have no voice…. But I have no reasons either, no reason,” (347). However, by shedding the flawed and false “Mahood” definition of language as self-created, the reader can understand the reality that the “hood” previously had hidden. Language is in fact created by man so that he can interact with and conceptualize the physical world, hence the statement that “if Mahood were silent, Worm [the world] would be silent too” (338). The narrator calls himself “the tympanum” that both divides and connects two differing worlds, “on the one hand the mind, on the other, the world, [not belonging] to either,” and says of the communication between those worlds “it’s not to me they’re talking, it’s not of me they’re talking” (383). What remains unsaid is that it is through him they’re talking; language is being used to connect the two worlds, but at the same time acts as “the partition” (383).

The narrator “seek[s his] lesson,” the lesson of language, “to the self-accompaniment of a tongue that is not [his],” because it takes a physical being to examine language, self-examination (306). His speech, “what [he speaks] of, what [he speaks] with,” comes entirely from Mahood and his ilk: those who attempt to give language meaning by force (324). The idealistic concepts represented by Mahood simply “[ram] a set of words down your gullet on the principle that you can’t bring them up without being branded as belonging to their breed” in an attempt to create a universal system of naming that binds objects to their brands, or names (324). The problem of language, in The Unnamable is finally approached through language itself, not by an intermediary as is the case in Beckett’s preceding works. Language says of the characters previously used to represent him, “all these Murphys, Molloys, and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me and of me alone” (303). He then wonders “if [he is] clothed,” going on to say “I have often asked myself this question, then suddenly started talking about Malone’s hat, or Molloy’s greatcoat, or Murphy’s suit” (305). Here the identity (clothing) of language is discussed, reflecting on the fact that, in the past, intermediaries were used to define that identity. Even if language somehow obtains an individual identity (is clothed), it is “but lightly,” because only man can attribute meaning to names; the ideal of self-identified language simply does not exist in The Trilogy (305).
This Mahood problem of naming, so pervasive in The Trilogy, appears also in Endgame, particularly in the character Clov, an intellectual figure, who “loves order” (57). Clov dreams of “a world where all would be silent and still and each thing in its last place, under the last dust,” and, like Mahood before him, idealizes this kind of controlled order (57). With the same arrogant intellectualism of the Mahood method of thought, Clov thinks he can describe “the general effect” of the outside world in “just a moment,” asking if Hamm wishes him to describe “merely the whole thing” (73). The difference between Clov and Mahood, though, is that Clov wishes to fall, bringing intellectualism to the world, saying “when I fall, I’ll weep for happiness,” whereas the intellectualism of Mahood tries to force the world to rise to its preconceived hierarchical categories (81). The problem of naming, in this later work, has accepted and moved beyond the inability to force correspondence on the world by lifting Worm up to Mahood. Instead a new problem arises, that of bringing intellectualism down to the world. When Mahood falls he can understand Worm, and when Mahood understands Worm, he can name him.