Nine Inch Nails and Boethius Aren’t the Actual Events
By Ashley Whitaker
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius laments his unjust imprisonment, but Lady Philosophy attempts to comfort him with a stern reminder that she has remained carefully beside him. No matter what else he is deprived of, Boethius cannot be stopped from philosophizing.
Like Boethius, the narrator throughout the new Nine Inch Nails EP Not the Actual Events is confused, struggling with the absurdity of his world. The narrator’s world is unrecognizable, and the uncertainty of the future forces him to decide whether to accept the solace that philosophizing can provide. In “Dear World,” the lyrics convey the disenchanted feeling of being locked within one’s thoughts, alone in the company of others who appear more asleep to their existence than awake to their reality. This point is, underlined by the passage in the song, where two separate lines of lyrics run simultaneously in the left and right channel of the mix, respectively, giving the listener an impression of a person hearing voices inside his or her head (the “Dear world, I can hardly recognize you anymore…”)
“The Idea of You” reiterates a theme that runs throughout Not the Actual Events, namely that the narrator wants to deny the actual events he witnesses. The narrator’s cognitive dissonance involves uncertainty as to what is dream or reality. He eventually chooses to accept the thought of himself as real, as opposed to acknowledging and taking personal ownership of his phenomenological experience.
This is quite different from “Into the Void” on The Fragile, where the narrator desperately, though unsuccessfully – reaches for himself as a phenomenon: “Tried to save myself but myself keeps slipping away”. In “The Idea of You”, his response is:
Maybe that was somebody else
Maybe, I was somebody else
I’m somebody, for what that’s worth, if that means anything anymore
In the EP’s first release, “Burning Bright (Field on Fire),” the narrator uses a monolog technique to deliver vocals in the background of heavily distorted instrumentals that synergistically portray the chaos echoing in his inner world. Boethius bemoaned the transitory nature of fortune in life. Reznor’s narrator embraces it. Much of the world may disregard one’s extrinsic worth, as Boethius experiences in withstanding wrongful accusations and imprisonment. Intrinsic worth, however, isn’t calculated by fate or misguided treatment by others. Lady Philosophy admonishes that only virtue is genuine and worth pursuing. Boethius and Reznor’s narrator can decide to act virtuously in response to situations that morally or ethically might make little or no sense; or, they can allow the valuations of others to determine their level of happiness in addition to their fate. Reznor ends the song optimistically, singing:
I’m going back
Of course, I am
As if I ever had a choice
Back to what I always knew I was
Not the Actual Events strikes a new chord for Nine Inch Nails. If Reznor’s self has indeed slipped away as in The Fragile, he now embraces his ontological uncertainty. Who one is, isn’t colored by providence or value judgments. Dire as one’s circumstances may be, no degree of financial or physical health, for example, can remove one’s humanity, unless he or she actively decides. One has no choice but to ultimately comprehend one’s true nature, as leaving the human condition is impossible. All humans exist each moment they are physically alive. Being human entails fluctuations of personal fortune, and events can change one’s life dramatically in a single moment.
One is not a seer or what he or she sees going on in the world. One is the act of seeing (relating to what one sees). Seeing is who Boethius, Reznor, and all of us truly are. We are not the actual events. We are all the metaphorical field on fire, without any choice but to burn whether we like it or not.
Ashley Whitaker is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology at Saybrook University, with specialization in Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal Psychology.