According to the Greek scholar Apollodorus, when Odysseus, in order to avoid joining the Greek expedition against Troy, feigns madness by sowing salt in the fields, clever Palamedes places his infant son, Telemachus, in his way so that Odysseus would be forced to divert the plough, thereby proving that he isn’t mad. Being rescued from death is Telemachus’s first memorable encounter with his father. The second occurs twenty long years later, when Odysseus returns to Ithaca disguised as a beggar, after spending ten years at the siege of Troy and a further ten at sea, pursued by Poseidon’s wrath. In both cases Odysseus (who during his wanderings says to the Cyclops that his name is Nobody) pretends to be someone he is not. Joseph Brodsky suggested that to owe one’s life to a man whose identity is elusive might perhaps be a salutary experience, and imagined the senile king recognising the possible advantage of his long absence to his son’s development.
Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong.
Only the gods know if we’ll see each other
again. You’ve long since ceased to be that babe
before whom I reined in the plowing bullocks.
Had it not been for Palamedes’ trick
we two would still be living in one household.
But maybe he was right; away from me
you are quite safe from all Oedipal passions,
and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.
But perhaps not entirely blameless, as Daniel Mendelsohn, previously a lecturer in classics at Princeton University and now holder of the Charles Ranlett Flint Chair in Humanities at Bard College, found out when he indulged a dream and decided to allow his 81-year-old father to join his undergraduate seminar on