Once, people measured their leaders -- and themselves -- one clap at a time.
And then, suddenly, just when the colors and outlines settle at last to their various duties -- smiling, frivolous duties -- some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life: voices speaking all together, a walnut cracked, the click of a nutcracker carelessly passed, thirty human hearts drowning mine with their regular beats; the sough and sigh of a thousand trees, the local concord of loud summer birds, and, beyond the river, behind the rhythmic trees, the confused and enthusiastic hullabaloo of bathing young villagers, like a background of wild applause.
-- Vladimir Nabokov
In the seventh century, as the Roman empire was in the decline period of its decline and fall, the emperor Heraclius made plans to meet with a barbarian king. Heraclius wanted to intimidate his opponent. But he knew that the Roman army, in its weakened state, was no longer terribly intimidating, particularly when the intended intimidatee was a barbarian. So the emperor hired a group of men to augment his legions -- but for purposes that were less military than they were musical. He hired the men to applaud.
Heraclius's tactic of intimidation-by-noisemaking, the audible version of a Potemkin Village, did nothing to stanch the wounds of a bleeding empire. But it made a fitting postscript to that empire's long relationship with one of the earliest and most universal systems people have used to interact with each other: the clapping of hands. Applause, in the ancient world, was acclamation. But it was also communication. It was, in its way, power. It was a way for frail little humans to recreate, through hands made "thunderous," the rumbles and smashes of nature.
Applause, today, is much the same. In the studio, in the theater, in places where people become publics, we still smack our palms together to show our appreciation -- to create, in cavernous spaces, connection. ("When we applaud a performer," argues the sociobiologist Desmond Morris, "we are, in effect, patting him on the back from a distance.") We applaud dutifully. We applaud politely. We applaud, in the best of circumstances, enthusiastically. We applaud, in the worst, ironically.