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CHAPTER 23: NATELY’S OLD MAN
The setting is Rome. At Nately’s request, Dunbar, Yossarian, and Joe accompany him and three prostitutes. In the house, there sits an old man who cackles lasciviously while the room fills up with eleven undressed girls. While Joe, Yossarian, and Aarfy busy themselves with the prostitutes, Nately strikes up a conversation with the old man. The man asserts that America will lose the war to Italy. Nately tries to counter him by saying that America is the most powerful nation on earth. The man agrees, but adds that America will one day be destroyed. At this moment, Nately tries to capture the interest of his whore who is bored and indifferent. Nately does not succeed and resumes his conversation with the old man. The old man believes that victory causes the victor to suffer from "insane delusions of grandeur." The old man tells Nately that he has changed with the changing times. When the Germans were in Italy, he was pro-German, and now that the Americans are in Rome, he is pro-American. Nately dubs the old man "a turncoat." The old man reveals that it is he who has wounded Major de Coverley in the eye with a red rose during the victory parade in Rome.
The old man believes that risking one’s life for one’s country is a silly thing to do, since a country is a piece of land surrounded by unnatural boundaries. The old man asserts that it is better to live than to die for one’s country. Nately cannot counter the old man’s argument and searches in vain for Dunbar and Yossarian to help.
Nately is a sensitive, rich boy who has had a pleasant childhood. He believes in the American tradition. His parents decided that Nately would join the Air Corps when war broke out, be an officer, and mix with gentlemen. Instead, Nately finds himself in a brothel in Rome. He spends the night alone in the room, and the next morning when he tries to make love, he is interrupted by the prostitute’s kid sister. He buys the two sisters breakfast, and then follows the elder one on her streetwalking rounds, before she is picked up by some soldiers.
The city of Rome is once again as a place of corruption. In order to spend the evening with his beloved, Nately must also bring his fellow soldiers. Nately is busy squandering his parents’ wealth. If the old man is lecherous, the American soldiers are no better. Joe is driven crazy by the sight of so many breasts and butts. It is evident that Nately is different. He does not delight merely in carnal pleasure; he is truly in love, albeit with the wrong girl. It seems as though Nately suffers from a need to destroy himself. He wastes his money and is pathetic and lonely. The doom that the old man predicts for America is actually predestined by Nately’s own predicament.
Nately is too much of an idealist and the old man strives to bring him down to earth. Their conversation seems out of place in a brothel. The old man raises many questions that Nately is unable to answer. He is a modern day Socrates surrounded by a bevy of naked girls. He is able to make Nately see the reality of the war. Like Yossarian, he asserts that nothing is worth dying for. Patriotism is non-existent; only survival is important.
At the chapter’s end, we see how pathetic Nately’s condition really is. A man of his fine character and up-bringing is reduced to following a whore through the streets of Rome until she is picked up. It is the American dream turned sour. There is one instant when he feels like the proud head of a family: he walks with the whore and her sister to a cafe.