Klaus Jacob, a German professor affiliated with Columbia’s University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is a geophysicist by profession and a doomsayer by disposition. I’ve gotten to know him over the past few years, as I’ve sought to understand the greatest threat to life in New York as we know it. Jacob has a white beard and a ponderous accent: Imagine if Werner Herzog happened to be a renowned expert on disaster risk. Jacob believes most people live in an irrational state of “risk denial,” and he takes delight in dispelling their blissful ignorance. “If you want to survive an earthquake, don’t buy a brownstone,” he once cautioned me, citing the catastrophic potential of a long-dormant fault line that runs under the city. When Mayor Bloomberg announcednine years ago an initiative to plant a million trees, Jacob thought, That’s nice — but what about tornadoes?
The evolution of human intelligence isn’t something that Celeste Kidd had ever pondered. A developmental cognitive scientist who currently works at the University of Rochester, her work had focussed mostly on learning and decision-making in children. Over years of observing young children, she became impressed with the average child’s level of sophistication. But when she looked at the infants she encountered, she saw a baffling degree of helplessness: How could they be so incompetent one second and so bright so soon thereafter? One day, she posed the question to her colleague Steven Piantadosi. “Both of us wondered what could possibly justify the degree of helplessness human infants exhibit,” she told me recently. “Even other primate babies, like baby chimps, which are close in evolutionary terms, can cling onto their moms.” She began to see a contradiction: humans are born quite helpless, far more so than any other primate, but, fairly early on, we start becoming quite smart, again far more so than any other primate. What if this weren’t a contradiction so much as a causal pathway?
That’s the main difference, I suppose, between Ginzburg and some of today’s most prominent parenting-advice-givers. Ginzburg, who authored twelve books and two plays; who, because of anti-Semitic laws, sometimes couldn’t publish under her own name; who raised five children and lost her husband to Fascist torture; who was elected to the Italian parliament as an independent in her late sixties—this woman does not take her present conditions as a given. She asks us to fight back against them, to be brave and resolute. She instructs us to ask for better, for ourselves and for our children.
The questions “Commonwealth” raises are ultimately counterfactual, philosophical: Who might we be if our parents hadn’t made catastrophic choices, and we hadn’t responded catastrophically to them? Maybe better-adjusted people with easier days and nights. But maybe the poorer for it.
The wife is very often a problem in stories, whether they are told in movies, books, or just dinner party anecdotes. The words “my wife” set my teeth on edge, said so often in the same tone of voice as a man might say “my car” or “my phone.” The property label often trumps her own name – why do you need her name when the most important thing to know about her is her association with me? And so wives in stories are metaphors, representations of domesticity, or adjacent to the real actors: the husbands. Who almost always get names.
But the dead wife is a particularly nasty trope in storytelling because so often her life is sacrificed directly in service to the story. She is there only to die.