I’ve never been a fan of that line, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” In fact, it irks me. Especially after last night, when I was at a theater performance and sitting next to an amputee. You know what the guy did when the show was over and the applause began? He slapped his thigh. Way to go pal, I thought. That’s the stuff. Sound of one hand clapping, my ass.
From the first time I heard that phrase it annoyed me. There are many well-known Zen koan-like word puzzles of much greater interest and meaning. Far from being an expression of ancient wisdom, it seems to me more like a caricature of profundity-something a couple of stoned college kids would think up in their dorm room and snicker over for a few minutes. Maybe it would become a running joke to them-a kind of code that captured that period in their lives, which was already slipping away from them without them knowing. Years later, meeting for beer or coffee, trying to rekindle some connection, one of them might recall the line and toss it out like another kind of line-and for a second it would hold-there’d be a laugh, a shaking of the heads. Then the filament would snap and the bill would arrive, and there’d be the sound of two hands shaking and two lives falling away again.
The supposed purpose of such aphorisms of impossibility is to stop the mind of course-disorder the senses as Rimbaud advised-to disrupt unexamined patterns of lethargic logic and open new channels of intuition and appreciation. But I don’t think this old chestnut makes the nut. The French Surrealists do a much better job-and isn’t it funny how French and Surrealism go hand in hand?
The sound of one hand clapping doesn’t stop my mind or open a new door. It merely unravels in my grasp, for it is a finger simple formula-and indeed can be fed into a computer to generate countless other similar constructions, many of them more poignant, certainly more pointed-many sounding like the French Surrealists. The automatists automated.
On the other hand, a much less pretentious turn of phrase like a “roaring silence” makes a great deal of sense to me. The similarity is obvious. Silence is defined as the relative absence of noise-a roar as an extremity (strange how we get cold in our extremities-cold hands, warm heart). Patent contradiction. Oxymoronic juxtaposition…all those lost words English teachers scraped so decisively on blackboards and then wrote PLEASE SAVE and circled in their brittle chalk for the janitor to read when the bell would ring because time had run out.
Who has never heard a silence so intense it makes you reconsider your notions of noise and sound-how the spectrum circles back around to meet itself, like the face of a clock? And there is a lovely embedded psychology at work-for perhaps the roar of the silence is an expression of expectation-of what was hoped to be heard. Like applause. The hands that didn’t clap.
Still, the thing I dislike the most about the sound of one hand clapping is that it’s suggestive of some essential loneliness. Isolation. Yet clapping is something we rarely do alone. It’s really one of the most fundamentally social things humans ever do. To desire to clap is to find a way to do it. To want to join in. The sound of no hands clapping may be a roaring silence-but that would be a communal performance. A unanimous verdict.
No, the better bet says the actual sound of one hand clapping is as much like two hands clapping as can be achieved. It’s the sound of a pragmatic improvised solution. It’s a guy who’s lost an arm, patting his thigh with some measured enthusiasm with the hand he still holds, which perhaps is very difficult to measure indeed.
And then if you listen very closely, as I did, you’ll realize that this sound is much like a hungry dog’s tail sweeping across a hardwood floor.
Which in turn is suggestive of the pendulum of a clock-and there’s nothing with two hands hungrier than a clock.
The truth is everything is ticking and even the deepest silence sings the time.
We applaud those things that rise above the hours, if only for a moment. We clap for them and for our hope for ourselves any damn way we can.
Please Save say the hands.