Literature and Human Sciences

Literature and Human Sciences

Towards the end of the Middle Ages, the word « literature » denoted the entire gamut of human knowledge. Then from the XVIIIth century only the written works are concerned, insofar as they bear the mark of aesthetic preoccupations. Indeed, as long as the Beautiful remained an essential category, literature retained its prestige for some more time. But today, at the time of cultural studies, why pursue the study of this literature whose importance seems to shrink away? What meaning could the study of literature hold today in the context of a national research policy? For example, in Japan we are discussing about the « uselessness of Arts Departments» (bungaku-bu fuyô-ron) for about a decade now, and we replace them sometimes with curriculum devoted to communication or comparative study of cultures.
It is however in the literary texts that the variety of the usages of language reaches the highest degree. Paradoxically it is here that each idiom shows its internal exactness while giving way to its excesses and contradictions. Therefore if we persist in defending the idea that a certain sentiment of what humanity is entails the diversity and the singularity of the languages of the world being taken into account in the most attentive and the most respective way possible, against any venture in leveling out and standardization, the order and variation that characterize each one of them should be first of all found in literature. How will the one who has never listened to literary texts know to subtly understand what his sources, their nuances and their resonance tell him? The polysemy and the connotations of the vocabulary? The implications of the different types or registers of utterance?
In the literary texts on the other hand all the information of a civilization, all its speeches cross each other, in all their spatial, historical and social expanse. While the different sciences need to isolate the real, that is to cut it to shape for the sake of analysis, literature « gets around all forms of knowledge, it does not fix, it does not fetichize any of them » (Barthes). And that is why sometimes the specialists of human « sciences » are irritated, uncomfortable or condescending about it. But that is precisely why it is irreplaceable.
In October 1979, during a symposium on « Japanese studies in France», Bernard Frank and René Sieffert agreed to sink the term « Japonology » into oblivion and wished to replace it with « Japanese studies ». As Mr. Frank said, this term « bears the mark of a time when a lot of people perceived themselves first of all as delegates of a discipline in this particular field of application that the Japanese domain represents ». And indeed, one cannot deny that the command of the methods, procedures and theories of a particular discipline is a sine qua non for completing a quality research program.
However Bernard Frank did not put up with completely sending back the accessories to the shops « those that still have a foot in Japonology » and which refuse to « allow themselves to be trapped between the compartmentalization of an excessive specialization ». But, without restricting oneself narrowly to Japan and the Japanese studies, the literary person, in spite of his shortcomings, is he not today often one of the few to bear within himself more eclectic non specialized ambitions, beside his ambitions of a « well-informed » specialist, swept by a dream of totality, utopian indeed, but also deep-seated? And on the contrary isn't its place crucial in that case, far from being so uncommon as budgetary priorities would imply? This overweening aspiration is obviously condemned to modesty and scruples, but it also fulfills nevertheless several very practical requirements (pedagogical among others, or supervision of research).
Finally, literary studies, just like artistic studies, have always been involved with always remarkable and invincible works. On the one hand, they indeed depend on a tangle of non-restrictive causalities and just as Norbert Elias was able to take care of « sociology of a genious» (Mozart), Sartre constructed the monumental L'Idiot of the family to try justifying the writing of Madame Bovary. But on the other hand, every important work always constitutes a rupture, a crossing of the line. Therefore it always makes us confront the extraordinary, unbelievable and unformulated. It forces us to question ourselves on the nature and the conditions of anything new. Far from being only an amateur or a dilettante practice in search of god knows which additional soul, the study of literature could thus become the most ambitious of approaches, concerned more than anyone else with respecting the singularity of beings, their legacies, experiences and innovations, but also incessantly obliged to integrate the contribution of the different sciences, combine them and complete them, because, to finish with Roland Barthes, « science is unrefined, life is subtle, and we require literature to bridge this gap. »