Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jan Baetens reviews Simple Forms

André Jolles. Simple Forms: Legend, Saga, Myth, Riddle, Saying, Case, Memorabile, Fairytale, Joke. Trans. Peter J. Schwartz. New York: Verso, 2017. 272 pp.

Review by Jan Baetens

29 August 2018

A work contemporary with Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) as well as the launch of Aby Warburg’s picture atlas, Mnemosyne (begun 1924 and left unfinished in 1929), Simple Forms—originally published in German in 1929 and now finally available in English—is like a ghost from the past, and a very haunting one. A study of the universal structure of narrative genres, it is both an example of old-fashioned philology and a work that challenges contemporary thinking in the field of narratology. Jolles’s program is as clear and simple as the “forms” he considers. He starts from the distinction among beauty, meaning, and structure, which he names the three major orientations of literary criticism. Each has its own method as well as its own historicity. Beauty is at the heart of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory; meaning is the main focus of hermeneutics, which began to flourish in the Romantic era; and structure is what twentieth-century Gestalt-oriented morphology is invited to explore. The structures in question are not (only) manmade; they are in the first place the result of the labor of language, which recapitulates in its way the triple labor of the farmer (the producer), the artisan (the creator), and the priest (the interpreter). Language is defined as a producing (ordering), creating (reordening), and interpreting (prescribing) entity that stabilizes human labor and that does so with the help of “simple forms”—that is, fundamental ways of organizing the overwhelming diversity of phenomena. Jolles lists nine of these forms: legend, saga, saying, riddle, myth, case, memorabile, joke, and fairy tale. He considers this taxonomy exhaustive as well as universal and approaches it in a threefold movement. First, he defines the form itself, generally through a critical dialogue with existing scholarship. Second, he explains the form in light of the mental disposition that distinguishes it from all other forms; a legend, for example, is a way of storytelling that presents the life of the protagonist as a model to follow, whereas a saga foregrounds family structures, and so on. Third, he examines the history and cross-cultural transformations of the form, whose presence and structure, although universal, may vary across different cultural contexts.

The result of the encounter between mental dispositions and linguistic forms, these simple forms are called by Jolles “literary forms,” though the notion of literary is far from monolithic. Simple forms are abstract structures that only exist in “actualized” forms, which are inevitably different from the general model. In quite a few cases these actualized forms are also modified by purely literary forms; the former (simple forms) are collective creations, produced by language itself or more precisely by the communities that use language to make sense of the world, and the latter (literary forms) are individual as well as artificial constructions. The relationship that constitutes the fundamental debate structuring the whole book is the relationship and the tension between spontaneous and artificial, collectivity and individualism, society and artist. One easily understands the subsequent sympathy of the author for national socialist thinking in the 1930s, though this identification is not literally present in Simple Forms.

Many elements of this book will leave modern readers puzzled or in doubt (we no longer rely so much on etymology, for example). But much of it is highly thought-provoking. Simple Forms sketches not only a merger of narratology and anthropology (a much-needed complement to the current hegemony of cognitive and neurological methods or cultural studies political readings). It also foreshadows and reframes, for instance, many recent debates around the non-individual as well as the plural, permanently changing components of digital writing and electronic literature. Finally, the book is also a wonderful example of the very possibility of doing theory—just theory, only theory—in the field of narrative, regardless of the current temptation to rethink theory in terms of easily marketable toolkits.