Do we define ourselves by the choices we have made?

The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods by Bénigne Gagneraux

Because I studied ancient Greek and Latin for many years, I developed a love for the Greek language — its unadorned sophistication — as well as for the great tragedians of fifth-century-before-Christ Greece. Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were its Murderers’ Row.

And though their plays appeared two-thousand years before the great Bard of Avon wrote, their work is as good as his and better than or equal to the tragedies of Dante, Arthur Miller, Spielberg, Tarantino, Scorsese, and others of that ilk.

Sometimes in my mind’s eye I see my younger self sitting in Greek class poring over the text of the “Antigone” of Sophocles, line by line, giving the text what the recently deceased poetry critic Helen Vendler called “a close read.”

I remain grateful to this day that I was able to read the very same language the Bard of Athens used with his wife and friends.

“Antigone” is about a woman who defies a king’s command in order to honor her brother’s death but the stress of the conflict leads to her death and the deaths of those she loved. (Sophocles is pure poet so young scholars are advised to carry their Liddell & Scott as a vademecum.)

There’s no need here to go into what Aristotle says about “tragedy” in his “Poetics,” written two-hundred years after the trio wrote, except to say he draws attention to an ailment called hamartia — the Greek is ἁμαρτία — which is the blind spot a person has about who he really is and how his acts affect others; such loss of vision brings unhappiness and ultimately a person’s demise and is why Aristotle says ἁμαρτία is key to tragedy.

The Greek dictionary defines hamartia as “missing the mark” (maybe with a bow and arrow), or being off course (as in the case of a floundering ship), which in people causes mental anguish. The ailment derives from ignorance in some cases but in others because the tragic soul lacks the tools — to mix metaphors — to keep his psychological boat afloat. He has no overview, no sense of the long-haul, which always morphs into a suspicion of others.

It’s easy to see why some writers define hamartia as “tragic flaw”; you look at the afflicted person and wonder how someone can be so blind, live so crazily as to harm himself and the people he loves, affecting even the health of his society.

With respect to being off course, Aeschylus in his “Oedipus Rex” — considered to be the greatest ancient Greek tragedy — tells of a man, Oedipus, who learns of a prophecy that says some day he will kill his father and then marry his mother — the kind of sex “Playboy” never covered.

Unable to accept such a reality, Oedipus takes it upon himself to hunt down the killer and bring him to justice — Sergio Leone style — all the while unaware that it is he, Oedipus, who is the killer, fulfilling part one of the prophecy.

Because of a mix-up at birth, Oedipus never got to know his “real” parents; then one day on a trip he crosses paths with a man on the road who gets sassy with him; to make short shrift of the nuisance Oedipus kills the man — who turns out to be not only the King of Thebes but his father!   

Once back in the city, the patricide meets a woman he likes and then marries her — has sex with her — only to find out that the woman is his mother! Part two of the prophecy is fulfilled. 

When the facts about the killing and incestual sex come out, the queen — Oedipus’ wife — is unable to withstand the grief and takes her life, thus Oedipus loses not just a wife but his mother. His guilt is so unredeemable he punishes himself by gouging his eyes out.

When I think of great literary tragedies, what comes to mind are: Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” and Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” even Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.”

But one title I never see ranked among the best is Woody Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Some critics say it’s not even Woody’s best, while “Empire” magazine, in its “The 500 Greatest Movies of All Time,” slots it at 267. And yet, when we look at the structure of the film and its continuous flow of primary-category ideas, we are forced to sit Woody aside Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

From beginning to end “Crimes and Misdemeanors” keeps asking: Is there a moral structure to the universe? What about in the case of a society, a community, a neighborhood, even a person’s psyche? Is there a “force” that governs bad behavior while encouraging people to be good?

Allen also wants to know whether, when someone commits a dastardly deed, a society, a family, a person, has the ability to set the ship aright — through punishment or forgiveness — to deal with the harm-done without someone having to gouge his eyes out in reparation.

The protagonist in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” is Doctor Judah Rosenthal, a highly-successful ophthalmologist, who’s had an affair with a stewardess who now threatens to tell his wife unless she can have all of him. She reminds him that she knows about the shady business deals he was involved in and, if she can’t have him, the police will. The doctor turns into a sheet of frozen panic.

When we see Rosenthal for the first time, he’s telling family and friends at a gathering what his father used to tell him, “The eyes of God are on us always”; that is, Omnipresence is the moral governor of the universe.

But when threatened, the doctor discovers that God, and the moral values he grew up with, are unable to assuage his pain; he hires a hitman who kills the woman thereby ending the menace to his upper-middle-class psychological, social, and economic well-being.

While his dark night of the soul was going on, the doctor plied his imagination to see what his elders taught him growing up. Should a person prefer God to Truth? What happens when someone deflects the eyes of God? Can such a person get away with murder? The voice of his Aunt May always seemed to prevail, “Six million Jews burnt to death and [Hitler] got away with it!”

During an office visit with one of his patients, a rabbi who’s going blind, the doctor bares his soul. The teacher tells the killer-to-be, “I couldn’t go on living if I didn’t feel with all my heart a moral structure with real meaning and forgiveness, and some kind of higher power. Otherwise there’s no basis to know how to live.”

Throughout the movie, we hear similar thoughts from a wise Jewish philosopher, Professor Louis Levy, who serves as the traditional Greek chorus. In one of his forays he says, “We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices … [and] We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices.”

And yet, he says, we all need, “a great deal of love, in order to persuade us to stay in life … the universe is a pretty cold place. It’s we who invested with our feelings and, under certain conditions, we feel that the thing isn’t worth it anymore.”

He then commits suicide. The eyes of God failed again.

The curtain comes down in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” at the wedding reception of the esteemed doctor’s daughter; in attendance is the now fully-blind rabbi who inquires of his host, “Tell me, if I’m not prying, did you ever resolve your personal difficulties?”

“Yes, actually. It resolved itself. The woman listened to reason.”  

“Did she? That’s wonderful!” the rabbi says, “So, you got a break. Sometimes to have a little good luck is the most brilliant plan.”

In reparation for his sin Judah Rosenthal does not gouge his eyes out like a maniacal Oedipus. He welcomes the future scot-free, proving what Ivan Karamazov says in Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”: “If God does not exist, then all things are permissible.”