When he noted that civilization was a "vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of its crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.

Although I almost know what the bold part or the sentence means, in fact, I am wondering what is the concept of the bold part- or, what is the relationship between the bold part and the whole sentence overall, semantically.

The "its" refers to "civilization", doesn't it?

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    The war (WW I) was not the crumbling (collapse, disintegration) of civilization but the fullest expression of civilization. Apr 9 '15 at 18:31
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    Because of the word "crumbling" I think "its" refers to "edifice of sham". The implicit metaphor is of a crumbling building. War is the ultimate expression of this edifice of sham that is civilization. Apr 9 '15 at 20:57
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    @TRomano: Looking a the original text by John Dos Passos (which is again quoted here), "its" refers to civilization.
    – Stephie
    Apr 9 '15 at 21:13
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    The grammatical referent of "its" is not perfectly clear, @Stephie. The word "crumbling" belongs to the extended metaphor of the "edifice of sham", so the grammatical referent of "its" could be the edifice. Ultimately, of course, the "tenor" of this metaphor is "civilization". Apr 9 '15 at 21:28
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    @Stoney B: There's an abundance of "its", so let's split the difference: the inner "its" (instead of its crumbling) can refer to "edifice" and the outer "its" can refer back to "civilization". Apr 10 '15 at 2:10

We can consider "instead of its crumbling" as a prepositional phrase which modifies "its fullest and most ultimate expression".

The phrase in question is surrounded by commas, which can mean that it is not in its normal location.  If we change the position of that phrase within its clause, we can eliminate the commas and possibly make the relationship more clear: 

The war was its fullest and most ultimate expression instead of its crumbling.

We might expect war to be the crumbling of that vast edifice known as civilization -- to be a failure, something that damages it.  Instead, war is the fullest expression of that edifice -- war is the point and purpose of civilization.

I don't know that I agree with the sentiment, but I understand that sentiment to be the point of this passage.


"Its" looks ambiguous, but isn't.

Rephrasing the whole thing..Can be easily done by adjoining the connected phrases and removing the disconnections.

When he noted that civilization was a vast edifice of sham instead of its crumbling and the war was its fullest and most ultimate expression.

Now, we know that "its" is referring to civilization.

  • Actually, adding "and" makes the sentence even less comprehensible. Jun 9 '15 at 14:59

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