Art and Sincerity

"In the history of this country, no artistic tradition has done more to elevate the human spirit than black American music. If one wanted to write a book that advanced the novelistic tradition and the possibilities for humankind, one could learn something critical from studying, for example, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

The opening words:

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory Hallelujah

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary explains the seeming contradiction between the grief of the refrain and the promise of the closing exaltation.

And you sort of say, sure, nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody knows my sorrow. Sure, there is slavery. Sure, there is lynching, segregation. But, Glory Hallelujah. Now, the Glory Hallelujah is the fact that there is a humanity and a spirit nobody can kill.

One can hear that abiding spirit in the voice of Sam Cooke in his pop adaptation of the song, and in renditions by others like Louis Armstrong and Marian Anderson. Cornel West elaborates on the contradiction between the refrain and rejoinder.

Glory Hallelujah is a tragicomic moment. Going to struggle anyway. Cut against the grain anyway. Never view oneself as a spectator but always a participant. Never view oneself as somehow outside the struggle but always meshed in it.

Both West and Wallace call for participation over spectatorship. We must move toward the Glory Hallelujah, toward the possibility of something greater. The best art can inspire us and push us closer."

- from "David Foster Wallace was right: Irony is ruining our culture" by Matt Ashby and Brendan Carroll  via Salon