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critical reflections translations language games

Reflections on André Jolles’s Simple Forms – Part I

March 15, 2021


This is a critical review of 20th-century literary critic and art historian André Jolles’s Simple Forms and his attempt at theorizing “the totality of all literary art”.


André Jolles was an early 20th-century literary critic and art historian, who attempted a systematic theorization of “the totality of all literary art” (Jolles 2017: 6). His seminal text, Einfache Formen, was translated from German into French in 1972 under the title Formes simples. This work has played a significant role in French folklore and oral literature studies1. An English translation, titled Simple Forms, has only been available since 2017, Jolles’s fascinating theory having been relegated to the sidelines for decades, at least in part due to his adherence to Nazi ideology during the Second World War.

What is Jolles’s proposition and why is it interesting? Briefly, simple forms are forms that enable the creation of all literary art although they are not, in and by themselves, works of literature, being authorless. Jolles develops his concept of simple forms in part as an elaboration and re-conceptualization of folklorist Jacob Grimm’s conception of natural poetry versus art poetry (Naturpoesie and Kunstpoesie in the German; ibid.: 177). The model is particularly fascinating on account of its pure formalism: for Jolles, ultimately, all literature is a creation of language itself, authors and poets being mere “executive” forces of a creativity that belongs entirely to language (ibid.: 190). This paper offers a critical analysis of Jolles’s model.

On Jolles’s model of literary forms: the pure, actualized and derivative simple forms

Let us begin by considering Jolles’s conception of language. Language, for Jolles, possesses its own Gestalt, that is to say, its own structuring and structured form: there is within language a “form-delimiting force” that increases and consolidates itself systematically, from the most basic linguistic level, amenable to syntactical and semantic analyses, to the highest level of literary artworks, analyzed through the principles of stylistics, rhetoric, poetics (ibid.: 8).

Jolles posits, in effect, two co-occurring Gestalts, viz. that of language, on the one hand, and that of the extra-linguistic world with which humans grapple on the other. The latter, for Jolles, is disordered confusion; it “does not possess its own form a priori” (ibid.: 18). Human labor is required to organize it into a “manifold whose parts interpenetrate, unite, become mutually intimate, and thus generate a structure [eine Gestalt], a form.” Jolles divides this human labor into three co-occurring categories: production (the labor of the farmer); creation (the labor of the artisan); and interpretation (the labor of the priest).

Jolles conceptualizes language and its labors in the same mold: first, in its productive aspect, language names and thus orders the things that are produced, created and interpreted in the world, that is to say, all of human labor and its fruits, or, in other words, the manifold of human experience. Second, a deeper probing reveals that language is itself, in fact, a producing, creating and interpreting entity: “Language creates structure, in that language poetizes (dichtet) i.e., weaves into form” (ibid.: 14). For example, Jolles explains, there is the individual Mussolini who once lived out his life, and then there is the literary Mussolini, known from newspaper reports, books, anecdotes2. The former is to the latter “as grain is to bread: […] he is made poetic, created.” Third, the interpretive labor of language involves “knowing and thinking” (italics in original, ibid.: 15). This includes, for instance, the discernment of similarities, of the commonality of phenomena within the manifold of human experience.

These three labors of language contribute to the generation of its Gestalt, its structuring forms, that Jolles terms literary forms (ibid.: 17).

What are literary forms? Language’s labor involves a stepwise ascent with an increasing consolidation of forms, from the lowest linguistic level (amenable to analyses via semantics and syntax), to the highest point at which is to be found the literary artwork. Between these extremities, along this ascending pathway in language, are the various literary forms, forms that are themselves structured within language, and which in turn structure the highest-level literary artworks. More particularly, lower down along that pathway are a type of literary form that Jolles terms simple forms, which are the subject matter of Jolles’s text, and thus of our discussion henceforth.

Two significant differences between the simple form and a literary artwork must be mentioned, towards understanding the former. The first difference has to do with our perception of their authorship: the literary artwork appears to us clearly as the work of an individual author. Simple forms, by contrast, have no particular author associated with them. Importantly though, for Jolles, both literary artworks and simple forms are ultimately creations of language itself, since the author, he asserts, must be understood “not as creative force, but as an executive one” (ibid.: 190). A second difference between simple forms and literary artworks has to do with how they have been studied (referring particularly, one imagines, to the state of affairs in the early 20th century, the time of Jolles’s writing, and to the predominance of “Culture with a capital C”): simple forms, unlike literary artworks, are forms not explained “by stylistics, nor by rhetoric, nor by poetics, perhaps indeed not even as a matter of ‘writing’; [these are] forms which, even though they are artistic, still do not become a work of art” (ibid.: 8).

In sum, simple forms are literary forms that are, nevertheless, not works of art in themselves, being essentially authorless. They are creations within language, produced by the latter’s three labors. Jolles divides simple forms into nine types: “legend, Sage, myth, riddle, proverb [or saying], case, memorabile, fairy tale or joke” (ibid.). Notably, these nine simple forms are themselves hierarchically arranged, from simplest to most complex simple forms, as we shall see below.

What constitutes a simple form? Jolles states that the simple form is made up of what he terms verbal gestures. A verbal gesture is a modular unit representing a concept within a simple form. How does it come into being? Jolles avers that it is through the workings of language itself:

“It is as if the variety and multiplicity of the events condensed and formed themselves, as if events of the same kind were whirled up together and then rearranged in the vortex so that they issued in a concept, described a concept”(ibid.: 34).

An example of a verbal gesture within the simple form of the legend is that of a wheel with sharp blades, representing the concept of mental and physical tortures that a saint undergoes (though, as Jolles points out, one is hard-pressed to understand how exactly it might work).

Next, how do simple forms come into existence? Jolles posits here a relationship between the Gestalt of language and that of extra-linguistic human reality: a simple form is produced within language “under the sway” of a particular (extra-linguistic) mental disposition. For instance, a mental disposition that he names imitatio prevailed in the Christian Occident during the Middle Ages (ibid.: 27 ff.). On the one hand, under its sway, within extra-linguistic human experience, emerged the saint (as a person in whose deeds and words people recognized virtue that merited imitation), and the relic (as an object associated with the saint, which was holy and powerful in its own right). On the other hand, under the sway of this mental disposition, within language, there emerged the simple form of the legend. Note that Jolles does not posit a relationship of causality between a mental disposition and a simple form that emerges under its sway within language. The relationship between mental disposition and simple form is, rather, one of influence and co-temporality, arising from the fact that it is in the nature of language itself to describe, order and interpret the manifold of human experience.

To be continued in Reflections on André Jolles’s Simple Forms – Part II.


Belmont, Nicole. Poétique du conte – essai sur le conte de tradition orale. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.

Jolles, André. Formes simples. Buget, Antoine Marie (translator). Paris: Seuil, 1972.

Jolles, André. Simple Forms. Schwartz, Peter J. (translator). London,New York: Verso, 2017.

  1. I discovered André Jolles through the work of French anthropologist and folklorist Nicole Belmont. Belmont (1999) draws on Jolles’s work in formulating her own model of oral tales. She, however, rejects the pure linguistic formalism of Jolles’s model. She locates the creativity that produces oral tales not in language but rather in notions of the human mind and orality derived from Freudian dream theory. ↩︎

  2. Cf. Frederic Jameson’s foreword to the English translation, where he speculates on the influence of Nazi ideology on Jolles’s model of simple forms and the “archaism” motivating it (ibid.: xvii). ↩︎