Is the Jewish telegram (‘Start worrying, letter to follow’) an indication of neurosis or realism? It is certainly a play on the supposed tendency of Jews to be anxious about everything – although in this instance it is couched as ‘worry’, which is perhaps a more adaptive form of anxiety. Why shouldn’t we worry if it helps us prepare for the most likely eventuality? The telegram must, realistically, contain bad news. If the news was good, why doesn’t the telegram say so (‘Congratulations, you missed the pogrom!’)? If what’s being flagged up is something urgent that is about to happen – a warning – then the telegram would surely announce this so that we could get away in time (‘Hurry, they are on their way!’). So when you get the telegram, it can only mean something has already happened that you can’t do anything about, and the message is, ‘Prepare yourself for terrible news; it is too complicated, or too painful, or I am just too much of a coward, to tell you about it like this, in the short space of the telegram. It will have to wait for a letter.’
The temporality of this is instructive: the disaster has already happened, even if we don’t yet know precisely what it is. Jewish optimism is usually presented in a kind of ironic-dismissive way (Jewish history: ‘they attacked us, we survived, let’s eat’); it can only be a joke, and note that even this optimism is limited to surviving terror. But the psychology of Jewish gloom is an art form that assumes all the real and imagined suffering of the past is with us constantly, and that we can expect nothing else from life. The chosen people? You call this a choice? So the instruction to worry is based on prescience about the Jewish response to any message. If things are going OK, you don’t need to tell me; there can only be one reason for a letter, and that is that something terrible has happened. And if the letter doesn’t say this, then there must be another one on the way.
Why the gloom? There are lots of historical reasons – they really have been out to get us – but there is also plenty of evidence that we are selective about what we take in, and much more likely to paint all our pictures in dark or bloody hues than in brightness and light. The years of peace and creativity in Spain? Yes, but they threw us out. The emancipation and cultural prominence of Jews in Germany? Look what it led to, the Nazis. The centuries of Jewish civilisation in Poland? Antisemitism in their mothers’ milk. Tranquility and affluence in the UK? Don’t believe it for a minute – it’s time to pack our bags. It’s true that we have been a precarious people, a nomadic one, settling for a time then forced to move on, ‘minoritised’, as they say today. It seems that this has seeped into our psychic lives in such a way that we always assume it will recur. It is as if we are hardwired to assume that however settled our situation, we cannot expect it to continue – and if we do, we are fools.
What, by the way, if the letter following the Jewish telegram never turns up? The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan wrote, ‘a letter always reaches its destination.’ The only way that I can see that this can be true is if we define wherever a letter ends up as its destination, even if it wasn’t the original one. Otherwise the history of the postal service is replete with undelivered and misdirected letters. Let’s assume for a moment that the promised letter never arrives. We are left then only with the worry. And then it seems that as soon as anything bad happens, we define that as the content of the missing letter. Which means, Jewish gloom is waiting for a certain kind of letter, one about a disaster; however many good, comforting, happy letters come in between, it is only that one that we recognise. When we are in that state of mind, we seem to believe that the only letter with our name on it is the one that says, ‘This is the end.’
Stephen Frosh, Jewish Quarterly’s Agonised Analyst, is Pro-Vice-Master and Professor in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. His most recent book is “Hauntings: Psychoanalysis and Ghostly Transmissions” (Palgrave, 2012).