Finding a Tongue: Autobiography Beyond Definition


  • Juliane Prade-Weiss Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main



James Joyce, St. Augustine, infancy, theory


The outset of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man presents a stage of life and language that is commonly evoked and, at the same time, systematically avoided in autobiographies as well as theoretical approaches to language: infancy. This textual strategy refers back to Augustine’s Confessiones, one of the most canonical autobiographies, reading it as a mainstay for an unconventional hypothesis: Rather that understanding infancy as an early stage of, or even before, language, Joyce expounds that the condition called infancy – the openness for receiving language while being unable to master it – accompanies all speech, be it childlike or eloquent. The article analyses Joyce’s text as one instance of a general paradox of autobiographical writing: initial aphasia. Setting out with birth or infancy, autobiographical texts precede articulate discourse. In Joyce, this paradox appears as starting point for a poetical – rather than theoretical – thinking about language, and language acquisition.


This article was submitted on September 22nd 2015, and published on April 9th 2017.

Author Biography

Juliane Prade-Weiss, Goethe-University Frankfurt am Main

Juliane Prade-Weiss is Visiting Fellow at the Yale German Department, receiving a DFG research grant to complete a project on the language of laments and complaints. After studying German and Slavonic literature as well as Philosophy, she earned her PhD in Comparative Literature with a thesis on the Infantile within the human-animal distinction in ancient and modern philosophy and literature, published as Sprachoffenheit. Mensch, Tier und Kind in der Autobiographie (2013). 2007–2017 she was Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at the Goethe University Frankfurt. She is also editor of the volume (M)other Tongues: Literary reflexions on a Difficult Distinction.