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critical reflections translations language games

Reflections on André Jolles’s Simple Forms – Part II

April 26, 2021


This is the second part of 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”.

Continued from Part I

How does one study simple forms?

Methodologically, Jolles explains, we must, perforce, begin with specific artworks, that is, finished literary texts wherein simple forms manifest clearly, “shimmering through the developed literary form” (ibid.: 46). Given this starting point, and the need to infer simple forms from the more complex, extant literary artworks, Jolles finds it necessary to distinguish three types of simple forms: first, we have the pure simple form, which is associated with a single mental disposition, such as the legend, which is associated with the mental disposition of imitatio. This is the simplest, as it were, simple form. Second, we have the actualized simple form which is manifest singly and clearly in an artwork. It emerges under the sway of a single mental disposition and is typically one of the sources from which simple forms may be inferred. For example, the actualized simple form of the legend is manifest in the vita or life history composed about a saint. Third, we have the derivative simple form, which is a more complex type of simple form. In this case, an element that does not correspond to a particular mental disposition, nevertheless, takes on the structure of the latter’s corresponding simple form (ibid.: 86-87). In such cases, the mental disposition of the simple form is “shammed, simulated” within the derivative simple form. Derivative simple forms are difficult to distinguish from actualized simple forms. Consider the following example: the simple form of myth emerges under the sway of a mental disposition involving the “desire to understand the world, the world as a whole and its phenomena, like the sun and the moon” (ibid.: 78). Myth involves the verbal gestures of question and answer; the question emerges from human experience of the world, and the answer is revealed by the world. There are, however, derivative simple forms wherein elements of the simple form of myth take on the structure of, for example, the simple form of the fairy tale. One sees this in the “literary fairy tale” (German Kunstmärchen; ibid.: 86-87). There, elements of the simple form of myth (the question and answer verbal gestures) are taken up within the structure of the fairy tale. Now the mental disposition associated with the fairy tale has to do with naïve morality (ibid.: 192). That the literary fairy tale involves a derivative simple form may be understood from specific differences with the actualized simple form of the myth. For instance, Jolles discusses the literary fairy tale of how the bean came to have a black seam. In this story, the answer comes not from nature or from the bean itself, as it would in the simple form of the myth. (Briefly, the bean laughs at the mishaps of its companions; it bursts at its seams and thus gets its just desserts; a tailor sews it up with black thread, and beans have had black seams ever since.)

As one continues the ascent through language’s literary forms, from pure to actualized to derivative simple forms and beyond, one arrives finally at the pinnacle of linguistic creation, the literary artwork. This last is composed by an individual author who essentially executes the creative forces of language, appropriating available literary forms, combining them at will, solidifying these combinations until her or his unique voice seems to emerge within the literary artwork1. This, as per Jolles, is how all literature is created, by the workings of literary forms together with the more basic linguistic possibilities furnished by the semantics and syntax of a given language.


We have thus examined Jolles’ conception of language, as possessed of and structuring its own Gestalt. We have considered his notion of simple forms, created in and by language under the sway of mental dispositions, and composed of verbal gestures, each of which represents a concept. Simple forms are authorless; they are not literary artworks in themselves although they constitute the latter.

Jolles’ model fascinates by virtue of its formalism, its attempt to locate the evolution and creation of all literary artworks within language itself. In this conclusion, we shall examine three problematic aspects of this model2.

First, Jolles, in his final chapter, brings to the fore one of the central problems with his notion of simple forms, constituted as they are by verbal gestures. The problem is that a verbal gesture is sometimes itself a simple form, as is the case with the simple form of the saying. Yet, in other cases, such as those of the myth, the fairy tale, etc. the simple form is made up of multiple verbal gestures. How might one conceive of the distinction between simple form and verbal gesture in light of this, particularly since a simple form is supposed to develop under the sway of a single mental disposition? Interestingly, the problem is reminiscent of one faced by folklorists in their attempts at classifying folktales. Folklorists have, over the course of the 20^th^ century classified folktales in terms of idealized abstractions termed tale-types, that are made up of motifs, the latter being the narrative units of a tale-type. For example, the tale-type “Carrying the Sham-Sick Trickster: The fox shams sickness and is carried by the wolf” contains, among its several motifs, that of “Disguise as a sick man " (Aarne and Thompson 1961: 22; Thompson 1955-1958: 1874). The most widely used classification of tale-types is that of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, referenced here, and known as the AT classification3. In parallel with it, Stith Thompson created a classification of motifs, also referenced above. These two classificatory schemes, used by folklorists the world over, have been troubled almost since their beginnings by the fact that certain tale-types are themselves motifs, although other tale-types involve successions of motifs in their plots.

A second problem that Jolles discusses arises on account of the methodological need to infer simple forms from extant literary artworks. Any simple form thus inferred, whether actualized (as a singly manifest, readily discernible simple form) or derivative (manifest in a transformed state due to a coupling of two or more simple forms), inevitably contains transitional and connective elements. The question that arises is: are these elements to be understood as verbal gestures themselves, that is, as concepts that emerge within language under the sway of a particular mental disposition, and that feature within a specific simple form? Alternatively, did these transitional and connective elements accrue to the original simple form along its way towards becoming an actualized simple form, as the simple form of legend is actualized in the vita or history of a saint’s life? In the latter case, these elements would constitute merely the “means of actualization” of a simple form and would not be verbal gestures in themselves. They would, that is, be unrelated to the mental disposition under whose sway the simple form emerged in language.

Jolles’ response to both questions appears in the last paragraph of his oeuvre and strikes a plaintive note: “Our study has thus to begin again with the verbal gesture.”

A third problem that Jolles does not himself bring up, and which is, in fact, at the heart of the first two, is the following: Jolles speaks of the creative force of language, whereby events of the manifold of human experience are “whirled” and “swirled together by language, condensed and recast […] in language as indivisible units impregnated and charged by the mental disposition” (ibid.: 215-216). This is how verbal gestures are formed within language, which then come together in the simple form. Subsequently, simple forms, whether actualized or derivative, are available to authors, who may appropriate them at will, thereby executing a literary work of art, whose creation, nevertheless, remains the purview of language itself. The question remains: we start with the materialities of language, on the sonic, semantic and syntactic levels, and end up with a literary artwork – but how? How precisely does Jolles’ impressionistic swirling and whirling occur in language, condensing and recasting verbal gestures into simple forms under the sway of distinct mental dispositions, over and over until a poet comes along, who takes up those condensations and recastings and solidifies them anew, executing them into a literary artwork? A robust theorization of these processes would probably resolve the problem of the difference between simple form and verbal gesture, as well as that of the transitional and connective elements encountered within these forms.

One would need recourse to something like a Jakobsonian poetics to begin to theorize this third problem. (Jakobson, of course, does not posit links between the universe of linguistic codes and a manifold of human experience within which certain mental dispositions emerge and hold sway among certain sections of a populace.) Furthermore, Jolles’ notion of a smooth, stepwise ascent from the basic linguistic level to the level of complex literary artworks would need conceptions such as Whorfian fashions of speaking, Bakhtinian voicing and polyphony, not to mention Silversteinian cultural concepts, intertextuality and interdiscursivity, to theorize the whirling, condensing, appropriating and solidifying that ultimately yields the authorial voice manifest in a literary artwork. Jolles’ stepwise ascent would, in short, need to be contextualized ethnographically, in reliance on such theories that link sentence-level structures with discourse-level structures of communication.

Pure linguistic formalism, shorn of thick description, seems merely to end up swirling and whirling about after its own tail. Furthermore, any such extension of Jollesian simple forms would inevitably problematize his basic assumption of the systematicity of language and of the manifold of human experience, since the models cited above locate language use in the communicative act, in turn rooted in the flow of culturally specific interaction. The impetus in such attempts is, of course, always opposed to analytic reifications of culture. That, however, is another project. Suffice it to that Jolles’ project of theorizing “the totality of all literary art” via the concept of simple forms is magnificent in scope and ambition. Despite–or perhaps because of–the questions they throw up, Simple Forms are ‘good to think with.’


Aarne, Antti and Thompson, Stith. The types of the folktale – a classification and bibliography. 2nd revision. Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1961.

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.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955-1958.

  1. Jolles draws here on the distinction proposed by Jacob Grimm, between natural poetry and art poetry (Naturpoesie and Kunstpoesie in the German; ibid.: 177 ff.). The former emerges from the human soul directly into words, while the latter is the result of the artifices of a poet. Jolles, of course, adapts Grimm’s distinction to the systematic Gestalt of language and human experience that he posits. ↩︎

  2. Frederic Jameson, in his foreword to the English translation, poses a different set of questions, regarding the basic assumptions of Jolles’ model (Ibid. : ix ff.): can simple forms indeed make up a system as Jolles argues? Is nine really the precise number of all possible simple forms? Our questions here, by contrast, are concerned more with the how-questions, of how the materialities of language may work to create literary forms and literature (at the levels of phonetics, semantics, grammar, and of texts built upon these levels). ↩︎

  3. More recently the AT classification has been updated by folklorist Hans-Jörg Uther, creating the ATU classification. ↩︎