Ron Rosenbaum

Do You Know The "Official" Answer to the Question, "What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?"

An old acquaintance who had spent seven years in a Zen monastery once told me what the monks taught him about that question made famous by J.D. Salinger as the epigraph to his collection, Nine Stories.

It’s one of those useless bits of knowledge I find a perverse pride in knowing and would like to share with you, blog visitors, because I know you are seekers of widsom, and this is a full-service blog inthat respect.

It’s something that was recalled to me when I received a copy of the new collection of Salinger essays %%AMAZON=1560258802 If You Really Want to Hear About It%%, edited by Catherine Crawford. Among the other pieces including those by Mary McCarthy, John Updike, Eudora Welty etc, there is a reprint of a piece I did some ten years ago for Esquire in which I recounted my journey to the verge of Salinger’s driveway (but not beyond) and my meditation on his Silence as not necessarily some nutty eccentricity but a courageous reproof to the publicity-industrial complex, celebrity culture and other noisily intrusive phenomena.

The piece The Catcher in the Driveway is reprinted in The Secret Parts of Fortune the collection you can click on on the left hand column, and it’s long and filled with ambivalences and I could tell you a lot more about it–and I’ll probably have more to say about it and this new essay collection. But for now I just want to impart that one bit of wisdom about one hand clapping and the surpizing exegetical apercu it prompted.

The lapsed Zen acolyte told me that when someone who had reached enlightenment was asked the koan “We know the sound of two hands clapping, but what is the sound of one hand clapping?” he will naturally, without prompting, demonstrate his enlightenment by silently bringing one hand from his side up to the middle of his body as if it were to meet his other hand for a conventional clap.

But instead–with the other hand motionless at his side–one will only hear silence: the sound of one hand clapping. Not exactly silence but an invitation to tune into the vast soundscape of the world surrounding one, the hum of the cosmos itself.

Works for me. But the major exegetical discovery, one I was so excited about that I actually, embarassingly wrote Salinger a letter and left it in his mailbox, in which I asked him if I was onto something (no Zen modesty here). It had to do with the very opening page of his most controversial, mysterious short story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”, the story in Nine Stories in which Salinger’s annoying fictional guru Seymour commits suicide. l found there– so well disguised so I believe no one else had noticed–embedded on that very first page an image of the “one hand clapping” gesture.

It is there when Seymour’s ostensibly unenlightened new bride Muriel is drying her just-lacquered finger-nails, waving one hand, “her left–the wet—hand back and forth through the air” to dry her nails.

Making the sound of one hand clapping!. I see it as a suggestion that the cosmic can be found in the vulgar, the high in the low. But I would, woudn’t I?

Make of it what you will, but I just thought you should know. I dare you, no I double dare you, to make the gesture of one hand clapping yourself.