The Clap

By Kris Saknussemm


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.

Roaring Silence painted by Saknussemm

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.

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KRIS SAKNUSSEMM is a writer, painter and musical producer. He is the author of the international cult novels Zanesville and Private Midnight. Random House is bringing out his third novel in the USA in March 2011, and a new book called Reverend America has just been completed and is already being sold in Europe. A Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has won First Prize in the Boston Review and River Styx Short Fiction Contests, and received the Fiction Collective 2 Award for Innovative Writing, in addition to publishing in a wide range of places such as Playboy,, Opium Magazine, The Missouri Review, The Hudson Review, The Antioch Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner and ZYZZYVA, amongst many others. You can find more about him on his Facebook Page.

20 responses to “The Clap”

  1. The first paragraph made me laugh so much I had to stop reading and comment on how much it made me laugh. It’s the wording and imagery of the whole scene…

  2. This was excellent.

    I’m applauding it.


    With both hands.

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    OK, I’m going to admit this so no one else has to.

    I thought the posting was going to involve Neisseria gonorrhoeae. But no.

    I’m with you on that roaring silence. To me, that’s when a very loud noise has just stopped, replaced by silence but my brain has not yet caught up and synchronized the old perceptual flow with the new one. Some kind of lag. Mostly I notice this when I’m using loud power tools without my red noise protecting earmuffs. What’s that you say? Wear them all the time?

    Kris, I didn’t comment on your dingo piece, which I found very touching. When I was in or near Oz long ago I would hear news items about the “Dingo Destruction Board,” and was never quite certain what that was all about, apart from the obvious.

    And recently I read an article, in Nature I think, reporting that ecosystems with dingos were more resilient and overall healthier than those from which the dingos had been removed.

    • *slowly raises hand*

      Me too.

    • Kris Saknussemm says:

      This is true, Don. Dingos stabilize ecosystems…and generally live in much greater harmony with human livestock raising than coyotes or wolves. As with many animals, the human disruption of their food chain then sometimes causes another reaction. Still, the vast majority of so called problems dingos create is in fact the work of domesticated dogs that have been abandoned. There’s a confusion between enforced wildness of individual animals and a distinct breed. And in the true Outback, where dingos have been a core species for at least several thousand years, one wonders who the intruder is.

  4. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Glad you enjoyed, lads.

  5. dwoz says:

    I can vouch for the Roaring Silence, as can anyone who’s been in an anechoic chamber. Sucking, roaring, overpowering silence.

    You can hear barely hear your spleen over the racket that your liver is making.

  6. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Hey dwoz, I’m with you. Or that crackling bacon sound of the Central Nervous System. Sheesh, it’s a wonder we can hear ourselves think. Low level operating noise–who are they kidding?

  7. Phil Abrams says:

    I would applaud with roaring approval but my one hand is busy. As always, your writings move in ways that shatter the silence.

  8. The closing did it for me. “The truth is everything is ticking and even the deepest silence sings the time.”

  9. Gloria says:

    I thought the sound of one hand clapping was snapping?

  10. Seb Doubinsky says:

    Like my good friend Steve Weeks once wrote, “If Beethoven fell in a forest, would he make a noise?”

  11. Simon Smithson says:

    My least favourite saying was always ‘Just be yourself.’

    Who else would I ever be?

  12. Cherry says:

    Mr Irwin, I know this is completely off topic but when I read your posts on TNB I feel like making out with a smart person! Any chance you feel like making out with a slightly less-smart person with a great set of norks, 2 hands and no rings?? 😉
    Wait..did I just hear a pin drop?

    • Kris Saknussemm says:

      Norks is a great term. I hope we never lose it.

      • Cherry says:

        The art of observance never was one of my finer points Kris. Im more of a ‘go-with-the-flow’ type, slightly ineglegant and akin to the one handed clapper. Glad I found TNB though. Yay for me *Big Claps*

  13. Kris Saknussemm says:


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