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The Asian side of the world

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Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Literature and the social science

Emmanuel Lozerand

Texte intégral

1December 2005

2Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the word “literature” denoted the entire gamut of human knowledge. Then from the 18th century, only written works were concerned, insofar as they presented aesthetic interests. As long as the “beautiful” remained important, literature was able to retain its prestige for some more time. Today, however, in the age of cultural studies, why pursue the study of literature, whose importance seems to be shrinking away? What meaning could the study of literature hold in modern national research policies? For example, in Japan the “ineffectiveness of the Faculty of Arts” (bungaku-bu fuyô-ron) has been discussed for about a decade now, and they are sometimes replaced altogether by a curriculum centred on communications or the comparative study of cultures.

3Nevertheless, it is in literary texts that the variety of language usage reaches its highest degree. Paradoxically, it is where each idiom shows its exact meaning whilst illustrating its superfluity and contradictions. In continuing to defend the idea of what humanity is, in the most attentive and respectful way possible, taking into account the diversity and uniqueness of the world’s languages, against any form of standardisation; the order and variations that characterise each piece of literature should be researched.

4How can someone who has never read a literary text know how to subtly understand what sources, nuances and resonance lie within them, not to mention the multiple meanings and connotations of vocabulary, and the implications of the different types or registers of speech?

5In literary texts, the traditions of a civilisation and its entire range of speech are intertwined in their spatial, historical and social expanse. While the sciences need to isolate reality, that is, to dissect it, for the sake of analysis, literature “gets around all forms of knowledge; it does not fixate itself, nor does it obsess about a given knowledge” (Barthes). Furthermore, that is why sometimes specialists of the social science are irritated, uncomfortable or condescending about and by it. This is precisely why literature is irreplaceable.

6In October 1979, during a conference on “Japanese studies in France”, Bernard Frank and René Sieffert agreed to discard the term “Japonology” and wished to replace it with “Japanese studies”. As Mr. Frank said, “this term marks a time when many people perceived themselves as being representatives of a discipline, in this particular case, representatives of Japanese…” There is no denying that mastering the methods, procedures and theories of a particular discipline is a sine qua non for conducting quality research.

7Bernard Frank did not, however, want to completely forget “those who were still interested in Japanology” and refused to be enmeshed in specialising in this subject himself. Without restricting ourselves to Japan and Japanese studies, is the literature student not, despite his imperfections, often one of the few seeking to become highly specialised in his field, but also a more eclectic generalist who has utopian dreams of a persistent “totality”?

8In that case, is his place not far from being trivial, as budgetary priorities might suggest? This ambitious aspiration clearly condemns modesty and hesitation, but it also fulfils several practical requirements (for example, educational needs and research supervision).

9Finally, literary studies, such as art, have always been associated with singular and irreducible works. On the one hand, they depend on a web of non-restrictive causalities, such as Norbert Elias who was able to apply himself to the “sociology of a genius” (Mozart), and Sartre who penned the monumental L’Idiot of the family to justify Madame Bovary. Yet, on the other hand, there is always a rupture, a crossing of the line, in important pieces of work. It therefore always makes us confront the extraordinary, unbelievable and unformulated. It forces us to question ourselves on the nature and conditions of anything new. Far from being non-professional soul-searching, the study of literature could thus become the most ambitious and attentive process in respecting the singularity of humans, their heritages, experiences and innovations, but also the constant obligation to involve, combine and complete the different sciences, because, to conclude with the words of Roland Barthes, “science is unrefined, life is subtle, and we need literature to bridge this gap”.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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