“TOO LATE,” is how Fredric Jameson describes the first English translation of André Jolles’s Simple Forms in the book’s foreword. Translated by Peter J. Schwartz, Simple Forms comes to Anglophone readers belatedly indeed — 87 years after its original publication in German as Einfache Formen. The German original appeared in 1930, five years after Ernst Cassirer’s Language and Myth and two years after Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale. Introduced into our local critical conversation today, Simple Forms risks being taken merely as a minor member of a discarded canon. Read more generously, the translation inspires one to look back on Jolles’s school of thought (which also included figures like Aby Warburg), and to appreciate how much, nearly a century later, the questions we now ask resemble and continue theirs.

Jolles belongs to the generation of scholars now seen as the precursors of the structuralists: a generation that combined the tools of anthropology and literary theory to investigate the origins of human aesthetic sensibilities. The world they lived in had just been torn apart by revolutions and World War I. It was also rapidly headed for the century’s next major international conflict. Against the sense of fragmentation produced by these political instabilities, as well as by the waves of technological modernization that concurrently overtook the cities in which they lived, these writers sought to better understand the lost traditional world that preceded them, and especially the more traditional patterns of thought and attention that seemed increasingly obsolete. Like their contemporary Martin Heidegger, they took much interest in immediate experience: in what it feels like to inhabit our cultural environments, and how our sense of ourselves emerges out of interactions with them.

Heidegger believed that the interactive, relational self-understanding that we develop in our daily lives is ontologically tied to, and revelatory of, our human condition. By contrast, Jolles — and others such as Propp, Warburg, and Cassirer — viewed the habits and metaphors we live by as imperfect working hypotheses about what our surroundings are like. On their account, the forms taken by our relations to our environments are simple and individually limited tools for dealing with a world whose complexity we can never take in all at once — especially not while also dealing with the burdens of the everyday. However, tracking down the working premises of the approximations by which we express ourselves, communicate with others, and explain reality to ourselves, had a value for these thinkers that was independent of such ontological imperfections. They served as implicit proof that the early 20th-century malaise and sense of cognitive fragmentation could be resolved not only through a now impossible-seeming fully synthetic philosophical system, but also through much more local and quotidian means of giving our life a fragile sense of order.

A more full-blown, self-conscious version of these ideas was only formulated by a slightly later generation, which would rephrase the elusive forms and morphologies pursued by Jolles and Propp as “structures.” These later figures — including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Leo Strauss, and Roland Barthes — were also the first to apply this formal approach not only (as did Jolles and Cassirer) to our cultural past, but also to their present-day cultural production. But the forms of their arguments — and the poetic rhetoric in which they are couched — come from this earlier generation of what have come to be called “morphological” scholars, whom many of the early structuralists read and learned from.

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Jolles’s biography is not unusual for a Western European scholar of his period. He was born in 1876 in the small Dutch town of Den Helder. Trained at various prestigious European schools, he obtained his first postdoctoral position in Berlin, but then moved to Leipzig, where he spent most of his mature life until his death in 1946. Jolles began his career as an art historian but gradually became a scholar of much broader, and quite astounding, erudition and range. He made forays into Egyptology, theater, dance, Western literature across many languages and periods, and, finally — in the work that would make him most famous — folklore. He extended onto all of these sources a formal curiosity and intellectual generosity that critics otherwise would only accord to works by established geniuses of the Western canon. Jolles’s aim in analyzing these folk forms was ambitious to an extent that a contemporary reader might dismiss as simply unreasonable. Simple Forms aims to define what Jolles calls the basic “verbal gestures” behind the various ways we tell stories, and the various contexts in which we tell them. Jolles claims to derive all of our contemporary narrative forms and categories from these folk originals, in a way that has bearing not only on their genealogies but also on their current functions.

For Jolles, a “verbal gesture” is a rhetorical form. It is also the set of relations among human beings, as well as between them and their environment, that an utterance calls into being and solidifies. Anticipating J. L. Austin’s theories of performativity, Jolles is deeply sensitive to the fact that what we say and how we say it orients us toward and within our world. Behind each human utterance he senses an implicit worldview and epistemic: an unarticulated but meticulously enacted theory about how we gather knowledge about our world, to what uses we put this knowledge, and how we expect this knowledge to accumulate over time. To put one’s experience into formalized language is, in Jolles’s mind, also to commit oneself to some combination of these aims — and to the mindsets from which they emerge. The best way to understand our own contemporary ways of thinking is, moreover, to trace them back to a select few original “simple forms” from which they stem, and within which lay buried the simplest algorithms of choices and distinctions by which we make sense of our experiences and lives. The forms Jolles includes in this highly selective group are nine in total: “legend,” “saga,” “myth,” “riddle,” “saying,” “case,” “memorabile,” “fairy tale,” and “joke.”

To paraphrase Jolles’s accounts of all of these simple forms would spoil the reader’s pleasure in discovering them on her own, especially since Jolles presents them in a lyrical style reminiscent of that of Georg Lukács. Some examples will have to suffice. One particularly illustrative set of passages emerges when Jolles defines myths and relates them to riddles. He begins his definition of myth by quoting an ancient account of the birth of celestial bodies. He is less interested in the particular causal chains on which this myth hinges, than in its aesthetic form and effect as a narrative. Jolles attempts to put himself and his reader in the position of someone who would find mythical thinking satisfying. He also attempts to show us what kind of satisfaction myth, as a form, appears to predicate.

“How to name these lights of the day and the night?” he asks, adopting the voice of the folk oral poet he just quoted:

What is their meaning in relation to time and the phases of the year? Who put them there? What was it like before the world was lit up by them, before day and night were separated, before time was subdivided? And then an answer comes to the asker. This is an answer such that no further question is possible, such that in the moment it is given, the question is extinguished. The answer is decisive, it is concise.

“Where the world thus creates itself for man out of question and answer” — Jolles concludes a few lines later — “this is where the form we shall call myths begins.” He associates myth with the need to imagine the world as coherent and consistently explainable. He also associates it, more particularly, with the need to see this world as ready to yield answers to a receptive human being; so ready, indeed, that in most recorded myths, the question that inspired an answer is only implicit. The world around us accepts our confusion and reaches out to us to help resolve it, maybe even before we are able to properly articulate our confusion’s source. That, for Jolles, is the highest form of the fantasy that myth promotes, explaining its intellectual satisfaction as well as relief that it gives to the person to whom it is told.

The full impact of this phenomenological and relational redefinition of myth is felt in the comparisons it allows Jolles to make to other forms — most surprisingly, perhaps, to the much more insignificant-seeming riddle:

When we compare question and answer in riddle with question and answer in myth, the first thing we notice is the superficial fact that where the form myth gives us the answer, the form riddle gives us the question. Myth is an answer in which the question is implicit; riddle is a question that demands an answer.

Out of this almost trivial, deceptively naïve parallel, Jolles unravels a magisterial account of the riddle as the basic rhetorical form of social boundary setting and community building. If myth sets in place a world whose nonhuman parts strive to explain themselves to human beings, the riddle captures the paradoxical capacity of social groups to be self-enclosed but also porous to strangers. On an immediate, pragmatic level, the riddle establishes forms of social hierarchy and exclusion: “The guesser, for his part, is not someone who answers another’s question, but someone who wishes to be admitted to this wisdom, to be accepted into the group, and who proves with his answer that he is ready for this.” In the larger philosophical terms of Simple Forms, the riddle also depicts a certain idealized balance of protection and inclusiveness: a balance that, according to Jolles, is not only a system of passwords, but an expression of the value of a local community as well as of the people who are as yet outside it.

Part of what is amazing about this comparison, and others like it throughout Simple Forms, is Jolles’s willingness to see these forms — tonally different as they are — on the same existential plane. Each of them serves an important social and epistemic function that another simple form could not satisfy. Nevertheless, Jolles refuses to see some of these forms as somehow transcending — or enclosing within themselves — the seemingly more minor ones like riddles and proverbs.

The equanimity with which he treats all of these forms, and raises each of them to a parallel (if not always mutually compatible) level of abstraction, irritates Jameson throughout his otherwise laudatory introduction. There is an obvious weakness to Jolles’s exceedingly democratic approach to rhetorical forms: it is caught in an uneasy balance between the equally undesirable poles of formal reductionism and anarchy. Like the worldviews that these forms are supposed to embody and stem from — roughly half of which hinge on some notion of totality, and half of which are much more comfortable with incompleteness and fragmentation — Jolles is caught between taking pride in the completeness of his work, and in the open-ended, loose connections he establishes between its components. Furthermore, he seems unsure what simple form he is himself speaking from: it is unclear throughout the book whether his own account of the origins of our verbal gestures is supposed to awe and assuage us the way a myth might, or to illustrate some larger point about language along the lines of a case study, or perhaps to set up a riddle for which Jolles alone, and his school of thought, can provide answers.

In Jolles’s own time, it might perhaps have seemed possible to resolve these questions by leaning on biological notions of evolution and morphology derived from Darwin on the one hand, and Goethe on the other — both of which would attribute the harmony between these forms, despite their contradictions, to the organic development of human consciousness into which Jolles somehow manages to intuitively tap. In our day and age, the unresolved tensions between these forms seem symptomatic of Jolles’s own confusion about his subject position in relation to these simple forms’ supposedly ancient-yet-also-universal spacetime. In particular, they bespeak his inability to acknowledge some of the very contemporaneous concerns that — as others, such as Walter Benjamin, understood more clearly — appeared to drive much of this early 20th-century folkloristic and anthropological thinking. The ease with which Jolles unselfconsciously dons the mantle of an ancient soothsayer, capable of voicing all of these traditional forms from the inside, is all the more troubling given the political future into which Jolles hurtled himself soon after Simple Forms was completed. Though he opposed Heidegger in many other ways, Jolles, like him, also eventually became a Nazi supporter. As in Heidegger’s case, one might see this turn as a betrayal of the more egalitarian feeling of Jolles’s earlier work, or one might find in this turn a chilling expansion of Jolles’s earlier views and choices. It bears noting, for instance, that his examples come primarily from so-called Aryan ethnic and cultural circles.

Any contemporary return to Jolles’s thinking must therefore be careful about what it recuperates. But as Jameson also suggests in his introduction, to think about and to admit to the similarities between Jolles’s thinking and our own, is thereby also an instructive exercise in critical self-examination about our preferred modes of rhetoric. Jolles’s simple forms are immersive attempts at explaining what it feels like to reach for a certain form of expression and find satisfaction in it — of how a verbal gesture involves a background of extremely generalizable, and even totalizing, expectations. Furthermore, they are humbling accounts of human thought as attempts to reach beyond, but also to compensate for, our cognitive and agential limitations, frequently doing both in the same gesture. As a parallax view of what Rita Felski has called “the uses of literature” — and of the dangers and paradoxes of trying to name and defend the ways we do things with words — Simple Forms speaks to us with surprising directness and insight, both in its strengths and in its weaknesses.

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Marta Figlerowicz is an assistant professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale and a member of the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her book Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character was published by Oxford University Press in 2016.