We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?– A Zen Kōan
One hand clapping. What could this mean? Try thinking about it for a couple of days or years and you just might hear the sound the universe makes, as Zen Buddhism, the source of this mysterious epigraph, suggests. Now, Zen Kōans are word puzzles meant to provide an object of meditation for the spiritually inclined. They aren't puzzles where there is a single, definite answer that can be arrived at through the processes of logic, reason, or math. A Kōan is to be approached with openness, even if some of the meanings don't necessarily make "sense." Although Buddhism makes use of teachers and spiritual guides, it stresses that spiritual matters cannot, ultimately, be taught. Each person must create his or her own spiritual path, and way of life. Meditating on a Kōan is supposed to help in this process.
We need to talk about what this epigraph might mean to "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period." Here's one way to look at it. The epigraph describes a spiritual or imaginative journey, from ordinary, logical two-handed clapping, to the more mysterious one handed clapping that we can locate with our imaginations.
The narrator gives us a story that, as we are told in the very first sentence and throughout the story, doesn't "make sense" (1). As such, the story itself could be taken as a series of Kōans, meant to be approached with what you've probably heard your drama coaches (and Samuel Taylor Coleridge) refer to as "the willing suspension of disbelief." This means roughly that we shouldn't judge "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period" by the same standards with which we judge everything else in life. To get at the meaning of Jean's experiences (as we discuss in his "Character Analysis" and in "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory") we need to forget that the story is less than believable in some moments, and let ourselves be swept away by the story.
Notice also that this is a sad story. Though the stories in Nine Stories aren't all full-on tragedies like "Bananafish," and "Teddy," it's safe to say that a theme of sadness runs throughout the stories, and perhaps even throughout Salinger's work. Take that with the idea of a Kōan and we might get the sense that this business of enlightenment might not be all fun and games. The fact that the primary setting of the story is 1939, smack-dab in the middle of World War II throws a real wrench in things. If the Holocaust is possible, if the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 (when Jean is writing the story) is possible, is there any chance of enlightenment and peace for human beings, even if we meditate on a million Kōans?
This theme of sadness as connected to war is manifest in the story as a general theme of amputation. (We discuss this more fully in Jean's "Character Analysis.") This is a kind of sinister interpretation of the epigraph. If only one hand is clapping it might be because the other hand has been somehow lost. If this is the sound the universe makes, maybe the universe isn't such a splendid thing to be able to hear.