A lot of what we know about brain development in childhood comes from what’s known as “the forbidden experiment”: a handful of cases in which children were rescued from lives of almost total sensory deprivation. One of these “feral children” was a girl named Genie who was discovered in 1970 at thirteen, never having left one room in her parents’ apartment. Rescued from this hell, Genie thrived. Her capacity to love was intact, as was her capacity to learn—to a point. She learned and retained information rapidly, and she communicated effectively. But she never learned to speak in sentences, and she seemed unable to unlearn certain survival behaviors she’d developed in captivity, like hoarding liquids. The story of Genie led to a theory of child development known as the “critical window” hypothesis: Some parts of the human brain are permeable only to a certain age. At puberty, a window closes, locking in and out certain information and abilities.
“Critical window” must forever remain at the level of theory; no civilized society would seek to replicate Genie’s hideous data. But we all have experience that backs it up—factual and emotional material that feels permanently burned into our brains. The Midwestern state capitals, for example, I can never dislodge. I drilled them so hard, so young, I am stuck with them. And that’s OK. I have other burned data that’s more problematic, if a rich source of art: my early religious education.
There will be no parent-blaming in this essay. My brother and I watched all the same terrifying filmstrips in public school at the height of Nancy Reagan’s “Say No to Drugs” campaign. They scared me straight for life; my brother, David, has said many enthusiastic yeses. And David regarded the gory tales and graphic threats of our Sunday catechism class with all the reverence he afforded warnings about LSD-laced Mickey Mouse stamps; if he cringed in the moment, he forgot within the hour. The Catholics’ Gothic fixation with punishment and pain haunted me—St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes, the nails through Jesus’ wrists and feet, the torture rack in hell. I don’t think I should have been exposed to this stuff, frankly, but it’s hard to blame my parents for “crimes” that had no consequences in their other child, especially when that other child’s reaction more closely reflected the norm. After a nun passed around a baby doll and taught us how to baptize a dying baby to save it from eternal loneliness in limbo, I went to pieces over the whole lonely dead baby thing while the other kids played catch with the baby. My family illustrates, I think, why Jung kicks Freud’s ass: I’m hardwired for obsession and fear and my brother just isn’t.
It was, then, an unfortunate sin of parental omission that I was allowed to watch The Exorcist on television when I was ten. We lived in Washington, D.C, so an older cousin drove me to see the staircase on M Street where Father Karras falls to his death at the end of the film, yelling, “Take me!” to save the little possessed girl from Satan, who has savaged her body, at one point ordering her to put a crucifix in her vagina. My cousin told me that the film was based on an actual case in nearby Mount Ranier, Maryland. Satan was not only real; he had a familiarity with the D.C. metro area and an affinity for children.
So I proceeded to educate myself about how to keep my soul safe from Satan. Unfortunately, my research was confined to books I bought in bins at yard sales. Terror tracts, basically. I learned that salvation was a constant battle and a moment’s lapsed vigilance could let “him” in. This made sleeping difficult. On the upside, it was a terrific antidote to loneliness. I was in constant, silent conversation with God, Mary, and various saints, establishing a kind of wall-of-noise interior piety that “he” could not penetrate.
The problem, of course, is that there comes a day when you realize that most “possession” cases are undiagnosed epilepsy and schizophrenia and that keeping dead babies out of heaven is a pretty shitty thing to do. By eighteen, I’d dumped my Catholicism, but I pounded the stuff too hard in my sponge-brained “critical window” years to ever achieve a clean break. I find much of the Catholic Church’s dogma morally repugnant, but I miss the ritual and I miss the prayer. I miss gathering en masse when life overwhelms, and I miss the interior life I cultivated when I thought Satan was in Maryland. I know there are other religions and other gods and I’ve tried a few on, but none of the free-to-be-you-and-me yoga spirituality that passes my content muster quite scratches my Catholic itch. The Catholic terror-and-danger model will always feel instinctively truer than these religions. Like Genie, perhaps, early terror trumps latter-day reason. I’m not alone here. Near the end of his life, Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, described the same enduring fear:
Am I happy? Probably not. Having passed the prescribed biblical age limit, I have to think of death, and I do not like the thought. There is a vestigial fear of hell, and even of purgatory, and no amount of re-reading rationalist authors can expunge it.
You can kick the religion of your childhood into your psychic basement along with the Minnesota state flower, but it’s always a synapse away and time doesn’t really dull its power.
It’s always reassuring to me when some high-achieving person—i.e., not a random wing nut with a blog—admits that learning about hell and Satan as a child can be something of a permanent mind-fuck. Still, it’s jarring to read the particular details of your childhood terror come out of somebody else’s mouth. In 1995, Trent Reznor, the rock music auteur otherwise known as Nine Inch Nails, told Details magazine’s Chris Heath, “The Exorcist ruined my childhood.” Heath reported that after viewing the film Reznor “was terrified of the devil. He would make imaginary deals to sell his soul. In bed at night he would lie a certain way because if he lay on the other side he knew he would be in for bad things.” It’s not all that wild a coincidence, I guess; schizophrenics hallucinate about government conspiracies, and the anxiety-prone cultivate rituals to manage fear. But the interview stayed with me, maybe for no other reason than that it undermined my writerly hope that my story is utterly unique.
Not until 1999, however, did I finally get curious enough to attend a Nine Inch Nails concert. Even from the highest nosebleed seats of a sports arena, Reznor’s show gave me those weird goose bumps you get in the face of the uncanny: the powerful familiar reexperienced as new and strange. He struck a crucifixion pose and sang, “Bow down before the one you serve / You’re going to get what you deserve.” He sang about wearing a “crown of shit” and declared himself a disgraced effigy, then shook water into the concert pit like he was blessing his fans with holy water. In other songs, he cast himself as an outraged supplicant. In “Terrible Lie,” he chastised God on behalf of the human race (“how many you betray / you’ve taken everything”), demanded accountability (“I think you owe me a great big apology”), and then retreated, begging for an explanation that would restore his beliefs (“I’m on my hands and knees / I want so much to believe”). But just when he’d lulled the audience into a warm solidarity of fear and despair, he turned on us and started playing God again, screaming, “March, you fucking pigs,” and turning his back on the mayhem that ensued.
Certainly, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen a rock star talk back to Christianity. Madonna addressed the God and institutions of Catholicism in a couple of postures. She was the cheeky fallen woman who performed saucy songs in front of a huge projection of the pope. “Papa don’t preach.” Wink, wink. When she did turn serious on the topic of cosmic betrayal, it was in a Lifetime television for women sort of way, turning triumphantly away from the oppressive father-deity in a celebration of self-esteem and feminist independence.
Tori Amos brought anger into the mix with songs like “God,” but even then, the most a disappointed Christian woman could do was tell God off and claim the catty last word: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through / Do you need a woman to look after you?” Of course, innumerable bands have played with rock concert as black mass or satanic pep rally, but these always seemed to me more Halloween party pageants than serious sacrilege. Nine Inch Nails was the first band I’d seen dig its heels in for a prolonged theological slugfest. And where Madonna and Amos played one role in the drama, Reznor played all of them—oppressor God, interpreter-priest, fearless rebel, petrified victim, insatiable Faustian transgressor, etc.
The drama of Nine Inch Nails is classically Romantic in its ongoing quest to extricate man’s soul from Christianity and craft a new metaphysics to fill the psychic hole that opens in its absence. All of Reznor’s songs speak to this cosmic estrangement, and seventeen years after “Head Like a Hole,” he’s still not over it. Does it get repetitive? Sure. It must. He’s wrestling with questions the whole canon of Romantic poetry couldn’t finally resolve.
I believe that Reznor’s epic-Romantic lyrical bent partly explains Nine Inch Nails’ stunningly successful return in 2005 to a rock marketplace that should have forgotten them. To put their 2005 success in context, consider this: It was a full sixteen years since Pretty Hate Machine. Anyone in college in 2005 was a toddler when that album hit and in grade school when “Closer” (the “I want to fuck you like an animal” song with the video that rattled MTV and made Nine Inch Nails a household name) was in heavy rotation. Anyone in high school in 2005 was… you get the point. The band’s previous album, 1999’s The Fragile, had not yielded a hit song and alienated a portion of Reznor’s audience by serving up all the rage and terror of Nine Inch Nails with none of the dance beats or sexual satisfaction lyrics that had always mitigated his suffocatingly dark worldview. T-shirts marketed for The Fragile’s tour were emblazoned with too fucked up to care, a line from the album’s opening song, “Somewhat Damaged.” This is classic rock-rebel stuff, yes, but it was a fairly major departure for Reznor, whose lyrical persona had always distinguished itself by caring too much, harassing God for answers long after most ex-Christians had left the building. Even the album’s song titles suggested fatigue: “The Frail,” “The Fragile,” “The Wretched,” “I’m Looking Forward to Joining You, Finally.” Reznor sounded exhausted and clinically depressed.
Turns out he was. A full six years elapsed before Reznor released another record. In 2005, he gave an uncharacteristically revealing batch of interviews that explained both The Fragile’s oppressive spirit and his self-imposed hiatus from music.
It had been a rough six years. Reznor finished The Fragile tour playing to undersold arenas and put himself through rehab for drug and alcohol addictions that had nearly killed him. He emerged from his addiction fog to some fairly harsh reality. His manager and friend of nearly two decades, John Malm, responded to Reznor’s request for an accounting of his assets with a shocking assessment: aside from his funeral-home-turned-mansion in New Orleans, Reznor was nearly broke. (A subsequent multimillion-dollar lawsuit between Malm and Reznor was resolved in Reznor’s favor.) The release of 2005’s With Teeth found Trent Reznor financially humbled, personally betrayed, and sworn off all the substances he’d long relied upon to blunt life’s sharper edges. On the upside, he sold his house to actor John Goodman and moved to Los Angeles before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Reznor’s new candor about his personal life may reflect time spent in a recovery program that casts personal disclosure as a necessary component of a sober life, à la “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” But it’s likely also true that Reznor found himself, for the first time in a decade, in the position of actually needing to promote Nine Inch Nails. Six years after The Fragile, it wasn’t at all clear how much of an audience the band had left.
In January of 2005, New York was plastered with immense black posters containing only three white letters: NIN. After a couple of weeks, these posters were covered over with a set of visually similar posters that posed a question: can you get up off your knees? Later, these too would be replaced by a third set that asked, just how deep do you believe? A fourth and final poster completed the series: will you bite the hand that feeds? Under each of these questions ran a simple suggested answer: (5_03_05). The promotional campaign for With Teeth smartly played on Reznor’s lyrical fixation with S&M sex as a metaphor for Christian worship in songs like “Sin” (“it comes down to this / your kiss / your fist”) and “Happiness in Slavery” while stirring curiosity in the non-fan with disembodied, antagonistic, vaguely sexual taunts.
Reznor proceeded with caution, booking a modest tour to support With Teeth that traded the multiyear, globe-spanning arena tours of his past for a limited number of smaller-venue shows. The decision would prove almost absurdly conservative. With Teeth debuted at number one on Billboard’s album charts, with the biggest opening-week sales of the band’s career: upward of 272,000 copies. More than a year later, Nine Inch Nails was still touring, now playing to sold-out arenas. Trent Reznor had done the nearly impossible in rock music: hit his creative and commercial peak at forty, sixteen years into an already successful career.
Of course, theories abound on how an album and tour predicted to perform modestly as a niche-nostalgia release commanded this kind of audience. With Teeth represents a couple of important firsts for Reznor and his audience. He’s sober now, and he’s clearly spent some time considering what spiritual foundation that sobriety is going to rest on. Second, he’s taking in the world around him and writing about it. This is new. Reznor had a wall in his New Orleans home that was a tinted, one-way window. He could watch the people outside, but they couldn’t see him watching. This image perfectly encapsulated Nine Inch Nails’ morbidly insular worldview. With Teeth finds Reznor still tending his tortured soul, but now he’s participating in the outside world too. The album’s first single, “The Hand That Feeds,” is a pointed attack on America’s war in Iraq (“What if this whole crusade’s a charade? / And behind it all there’s a price to be paid / for the blood on which we dine / Justified in the name of the holy and the divine”), and Reznor backed out of performing at the MTV Movie Awards when the producers refused to let him perform the song in front of a huge photo of President Bush.
This is a seismic shift in worldview for Nine Inch Nails. The layers of toxic insulation—drugs, booze, Christianity, one-way windows, and embezzling yes-men—are gone and Reznor is juggling terrors both personal and universal. His struggles with Christianity—and my own—resonate differently in the sixth year of a Christian presidency. On With Teeth, Reznor trades illusion and intoxication for lucidity in an exceptionally perilous time. There’s a gravity and complexity to these songs that wasn’t there before. But when have gravity and complexity ever sold rock records?
In 1991, it did. One theory advanced to explain the band Nirvana’s rocket-out-of-nowhere popular success in the early ’90s is that when the caliber of Top 40 rock dips too low for too long, a door cracks open for music that, under different circumstances, would have remained fringe. There’s no other way, really, to explain a band like Nirvana playing arena shows with a front man in a dress and songs about Frances Farmer and herbal abortions. A lot of what we loved about Nirvana was just this: they snuck in. And everybody knew it. In 2005, Nine Inch Nails snuck back in under similar circumstances. I think we let Trent Reznor back in because we needed him.
The most Googled phrase in 2004 was Britney Spears, an artist who, at the time, was not even making her own mediocre music, but covering someone else’s with Bobby Brown’s “My Prerogative.” Hip-hop artists were singing about sex and bling; young white girls were singing about cat fights with each other, and white male pop was glutted with faux Coldplay sincerity and Weezer-whimsy that, unchecked by Rivers Cuomo’s meanness, has little more to offer than a toothpaste commercial. The ad campaign for With Teeth took aim at the same cultural nerve “Smells Like Teen Spirit” did: a pervasive apathy in the rock fan community that is both totally justifiable and totally inexcusable. Can you get up off your knees? Just how deep do you believe? Will you bite the hand that feeds? I think—I hope—these questions resonated with a rock audience that bought up Sean “Puffy” Combs’s “Vote or Die” T-shirts en masse and then fell short at the polls. If ever there was a time to woo rock fans with S&M humiliation taunts, 2005 was it. “Oh, well, whatever, nevermind” really, really screwed us.
Reznor now has thousands of young male fans singing these words from With Teeth’s “The Collector”: “I’m trying to fit it all inside / I’m trying to open my mouth wide / I’m trying not to choke and swallow it all swallow it all swallow it all swallow it all.” It’s fellatio as metaphor, just like Nirvana’s “Rape Me” was rape as metaphor, and it both surprises me and restores my hope to see thousands of young, straight guys singing along. I don’t think most of them can articulate how the metaphors in these songs function, but I don’t think it matters. They know the songs are about more than a sex act. They get in a vague, gut way that this is epic music, music that—like a Romantic poem—commands you to open yourself to the larger world, even if it hurts, and give a damn. Connect and matter. Like the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, Reznor’s battle for personal salvation coincides with a cultural horror show so terrible that the two concerns must merge. The result is a breathtaking exercise in furious, heartbroken hope.
The term Romantic in literature has come to signify so many things that it no longer signifies much of anything. For a Romantic purist, the term refers to a radical cultural shift in nineteenth-century Europe that has nothing to do with “romance” in the Valentine’s Day sense. In a time of profound cultural upheaval, a group of unhappy poets took on the role of metaphysician and attempted to redesign the cosmic order in a way that would alleviate despair. The most famous “big six”—Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, and Keats—were, to varying degrees, observant Christians who saw religious faith as the essential cornerstone of human life, but found institutional Christianity increasingly irrelevant, if not immoral. The French Revolution had delivered on none of its lofty promises and kicked off a full twenty years of bloody aftershocks. The Industrial Revolution happened simultaneously and followed a similar pattern: grandiose promise, hideously dehumanizing results. The first slums were born. Christianity seemed increasingly bankrupt, perhaps because—like revolution and industrialization—it promised that protracted, noble suffering would yield magnificent rewards. John Keats sought a “system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity.” William Blake, in Jerusalem, vowed to “create a System or be enslaved by another man’s.”
What this meant, in practical terms, was removing all the hoops, rules, and middlemen that stood between man and an experience of the divine. Take away institutions, rituals, and scripture. Forget the afterlife. The Romantics aimed to revise Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost to imagine Paradise here and now through two actions: rigorous personal reflection and “marriage” to the natural world. For Shelley, the “natural world” included other human beings, so sexual and familial love qualified as conduits to the divine. For others, “marrying nature” literally meant embracing the outdoors. The Romantic vision defies easy characterization mostly because it’s something of a free-for-all model of religious faith. It’s also exuberantly optimistic, regarding humanity not as fallen or limited, but as exhilaratingly capable of finding God without assistance, of saving its own soul.
For all their radical rethinking, however, the Romantic poets were unwilling to completely abandon Christianity. Perhaps they recognized that the Christian brain could never dump biblical narratives, only recycle them. In Natural Supernaturalism, the literary critic M. H. Abrams describes the Romantic poets’ conversion of biblical narrative to psychic symbol:
The heights and depths of the mind of man are to replace heaven and hell, and the powers of the mind are to replace the divine protagonists… As a result, Biblical history is completely internalized and the entire text becomes no more than a sustained metaphoric vehicle for the powers, states, conflicts, and processes of individual minds in the course of their experience on earth.
The Romantics were not unaware, however, that spiritual autonomy is something of a double-edged sword. The mind powerful enough to save itself is also powerful enough to destroy itself.
Trent Reznor’s work as Nine Inch Nails parallels—often with truly eerie fidelity—the Romantic movement in Western literature. Reznor engages and challenges Christian cosmology (Pretty Hate Machine), indicts and attacks that cosmology (Broken and The Downward Spiral), loses the fight and mourns the loss (The Fragile), before finding, on With Teeth, a blueprint for secular, but not unspiritual, salvation. His body of work offers me today what the Romantic poets offered their readers: an aesthetically beautiful articulation of my immense cosmic grievance, a cathartic exorcism of my big, fat metaphysical fury, and—on With Teeth—an examination of what personal salvation in a scary, post-Christian life may mean.
The dirty little secret for all of us, though—me, Reznor, the Romantic poets—is that we will always pine for Christianity. Can we salvage what Christianity does right—its ritual and majesty and community—and overhaul its dogma? Can spirituality be both individually authored and communally observed? Ritualistic gathering seems to me—and to Reznor and to the Romantics, finally—a basic human need without which independent thought turns morbid and toxic. It’s likely no accident that Reznor’s work assumes Romantic scope when he gets sober. Twelve-step recovery is the Romantic journey in a nutshell: Figure out a metaphysics you can believe in (a “higher power”) and gather in the name of it. Often. Ask the scary questions alone. Connect with other humans to face the scary answers.
Shelley’s dramatic poem Prometheus Unbound offers us the literary protagonist whose journey most closely parallels Reznor’s evolution as Nine Inch Nails. As first depicted by the Greeks, Prometheus is an agonized god-man hybrid—a god whose natural sympathies lay with mortal men. He stole fire for mankind and incurred Jupiter’s wrath. Exiled from both divine and human realms, he was chained atop a mountain to endure thousands of years of torture: an eagle pecking at his liver. In the Greeks’ tale, Prometheus was eventually rescued by Hercules. In Shelley’s revision, Prometheus rails angrily at Jupiter until something truly remarkable happens. Prometheus observes his own rage and recoils in horror: he has become the thing he hates. So he retracts his curse and offers pity instead. In this moment, his chains fall away! Prometheus’s imprisonment and torture were his own creations and as such always within his power to end. In changing the instrument of Prometheus’s freedom from Hercules to Prometheus’s own mind, Shelley offers a vision of the psyche’s power to heal itself. The Spirit of the Hour closes the third act of the play with this summary:
The loathsome mask has fallen, the man remains
Sceptreless, free, uncircumscribed—but man:
Equal, unclassed, tribeless, and nationless;
Exempt from awe, worship, degree; the King
Over himself; just, gentle, wise—but man:
Passionless? No—yet free from guilt or pain,
Which were, for his will made, or suffered them;
Nor yet exempt, though ruling them like slaves…
Shelley chooses to leave Prometheus with his demons after he has been set free—a radical break with the Judeo-Christian notion of spiritual health as a psyche scrubbed clean of its darkness. The Romantics’—and Reznor’s—design for spiritual wholeness will not exclude the psyche’s own darkness. Or sex. Prometheus Unbound follows Prometheus’s spiritual self-actualization with a marriage to his beloved, Asia.
Interestingly, Reznor’s most straightforward love songs appear on The Fragile, his most hopeless record and the one that precipitated his own psychic unraveling. In The Fragile’s love songs, love—a woman’s, a parent’s, a friend’s—is fraught with metaphysical baggage. Love repairs the cosmic wounding chronicled on Pretty Hate Machine, and its loss threatens to tear that wound wide open again. These are capital R Romantic songs that expect from a love relationship more than consolation and diversion in a godless world; they expect something close to a replacement. For love to really compete with the cosmic/religious structures we’ve smashed, it must be—or at least appear to be—as formidable and indestructible.
The good news here is that The Fragile’s love songs soar as high and hit as hard as the epic love they aspire to. The bad news is that love fails to save the day; it dies, disappoints, and betrays. The album’s narrative suggests a kind of dark sequel to Prometheus Unbound in which Prometheus’s bond with Asia is severed and he fails to survive alone. To alienate your gods and lose in love, The Fragile suggests, leaves you with only yourself to rely upon. If that self is “fragile,” you will perish.
The Prometheus story parallels Reznor’s journey as Nine Inch Nails more closely than the oeuvre of any Romantic author for this reason: Nine Inch Nails traverses both pre-Romantic and post-Romantic terrain as well, drawing on both the Gothic sensibility that influenced the Romantics and the modern psychological theory they helped shape.
The Romantic poets owe a debt to the much-maligned “Gothic” writers (most notably, Ann Radcliffe and Horace Walpole) who preceded them. Critically dismissed, in 1764 and 2007 alike, as “low” literature, the Gothic novel commanded large audiences with stories of gruesome depravity and death. The requirements for the Gothic novel were few, but essential: a cruel villain; an innocent victim; a terrible place, hidden from view; torture and torment. Incest and disease were favorite themes, as was the futility of goodness. In Gothic narratives, evil nearly always wins.
In his study of the Gothic in contemporary America, Nightmare on Main Street, Mark Edmundson asserts that the Romantics reconfigured the Gothics’ macabre tales of physical peril as stories of cosmic crisis—mortal men (innocent victims) struggling with a sadistic, indifferent Christian God (cruel villain). They recast the roles in the Gothic narrative, but held on to many of its favorite props—chains, slaves, shackles, ghosts—by transmuting them into metaphors. Sigmund Freud, Edmundson continues, subsequently usurped the Romantics’ metaphors to fashion his concept of the human psyche as a conflicted trinity—id, ego, superego—in which the ego negotiates between raw desire (victim/human) and overzealous desire police (villain/God). For Freud, the human psyche constituted an interior castle as treacherous to navigate as any Gothic dungeon or crisis of faith. He removed the external oppressor—human or divine—from the equation, rendering man—literally—his own worst enemy.
Reznor has followed exactly this trajectory with Nine Inch Nails’ albums: a Gothic palette, morally black-and-white, gives way to a classically Romantic attempt to renegotiate man’s relationship with God. Failing here, his protagonist suffers personal disintegration, repaired, on With Teeth, by a Freudian understanding that the real battleground is his own mind. This, finally, is what made performances on Nine Inch Nails’ With Teeth tour not only compelling but cathartic: the Romantic heroic dilemma unpacked in all its terror and wonder with enough Gothic to make it theatrically beautiful and enough Freud to bring the most resolute atheist to his knees.
Reznor’s first concept of Nine Inch Nails was visually and lyrically intensely “Gothic” and fixated on S&M sexuality. He performed in classic “Goth” costume for years—black leather, jet black hair, and—his final step before taking the stage—head-to-toe white powder. Under the lights and machine-generated fog, Reznor looked like the undead. The videos that supported his first two records featured graphic S&M sex and torture images: The video for “Happiness in Slavery” depicted S&M performance artist Bob Flanagan submitting to a machine that appears to sexually violate and kill him. The video for “Gave Up” was filmed in the Los Angeles house where Sharon Tate and friends were murdered by the Manson family.
Gothic torture and S&M sex images may seem interchangeable, but their master/slave paradigms are diametrically opposed. S&M sex posits a willing “victim”; in the Gothic mode, the victim is always violated against his/her will. The songs on Reznor’s first two albums (Pretty Hate Machine and Broken) identify with both scenarios, alternately enraged and seduced by the idea of ceding control and submitting to pain. The dynamic interplay of Gothic and S&M on these records enabled Reznor to articulate the ferociously ambivalent theological position he shared with the Romantic poets who couldn’t help but pine for the very “systems” they had railed against. “Happiness in Slavery” articulates this ambivalence via the language of sadomasochistic sex: “Slave screams he’s gonna cause the system to fall / Slave screams but he’s glad to be chained to that wall.”
This war of conflicting identities—grandiose declarations of sovereignty alternating with self-doubt so terrifying it verges on self-hate—seems to have afforded Reznor his unique position in the rock marketplace. An exceptional facility with machines enabled him to create a full-band sound without other musicians on Pretty Hate Machine, a record that, ironically, found Reznor railing at a controlling God in his lyrics while playing just such a God in his music. Pretty Hate Machine distinguished itself by marrying seemingly incompatible musical genres—the geek-master technical proficiency of industrial and electronic fused with the appealing hooks and emotionally invested lyrics of pop. Reznor composed like a god, but he cringed like a man.
But like Prometheus before him, Reznor eventually fatigues on Gothic’s stark victim/villain, god/
man polarities. On 1995’s The Downward Spiral, he makes the leap from Gothic to Romantic, stops railing against a system he loathes, and attempts a system of his own making. But change does not come easily. The album opens with grandiose boast and bluster and closes with a song called “Hurt” whose whispering defeat is a profound comedown from the opening track’s battle cry. “Beneath the stain of time,” the voice regards his life as a sick parody of the divine kingdom he rejected: an “empire of dirt” and a “crown of shit.”
The voice in “Hurt” has challenged a divinity, and, like Prometheus before him, his audacity has crude, Gothic consequences. Like Prometheus’s savaged liver, the outcome of rebellion in “Hurt” is physically appalling—dirt, shit, needles. The Downward Spiral’s songs are obsessed with the fragility of the physical body, the myriad ways it may be compromised: guns, virus, infection, disease, broken bones, rape, insanity, intravenous drugs, bamboo torture, self mutilation. A move away from divinity, perhaps, forces man’s physicality into sharper focus.
The psychoanalyst and literary theorist Julia Kristeva has described a specific class of terrors that she terms the “horror of abjection”: a visceral unease we feel beholding something we feel should be contained. We are exquisitely unnerved, for example, by seeing parts of our body outside our body: blood, excrement, vomit, cum, tears, guts. The Greek gods’ curse on Prometheus delivered a horrifically “abject” punch in not only exposing his liver but forcing him to watch it picked apart. This terror of “abjection”—our insides turned out—is fueled by the discomfort we feel confronting our animal nature. Religion offers some armor against this knowledge, with images of immortal souls that rise off corpses like smoke, escaping gruesome decay. Without religious conviction, however, evidence of our human carnality unnerves.
It is, then, a short leap from horror of the body as fragile—thin skin reigning in horrific goo—to the fantasy of man as machine: clean, hard, impenetrable, reliable. Images of man as machine, guts traded for circuitry, run through each of Reznor’s albums, but The Downward Spiral chronicles this identity crisis at its most furious. These songs want it all. They want to fuck like animals and rule like gods—then morph into machines when all the heat and drama becomes too much. In “The Becoming,” the voice regards two unsatisfying extremes:
The me that you know used to have feelings
but the blood has stopped pumping and he’s left to decay
the me that you know is now made up of wires
and even when I’m right with you I’m so far away
Twelve of the album’s fourteen songs depict broken skin as, stripped of religion’s assurances, the body repulses and the mind unravels. The Downward Spiral does not end in defeat, however. The album’s final lyrics, from “Hurt,” concede defeat while simultaneously plotting a return: “If I could start again / a million miles away / I would keep myself / I would find a way.”
The album’s title image of a “spiral” and its closing image of “keeping” the self reflect—deliberately or not—major philosophical writings of the Romantic Age that sought to reconceive Christianity’s perfect-circle model of human life, in which man ends exactly where he began, trading one state of uncomplicated bliss (womb/Eden) for another (afterlife/heaven). We long to return to where we began, Romantic philosophers agreed, but the longing is different than nostalgic regression. Like the toddler who pushes his mother away in the face of danger—a high staircase, a hot stove—our urge is to separate, experience, and return to the same place, changed. So it really isn’t the same place. The image Romantic philosophers chose to illustrate their revised design for human life was the spiral—a figure that illustrates advancement through integration. Excluding nothing, a spiral continually revisits the same points at higher levels.
This was the “Romantic way,” M. H. Abrams explains, “an inclined plane back toward the point of origin… the circuitous journey homeward.” Abrams also cites an observation by Goethe, best-selling Romantic author of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust, that ponders the same concept: “If we also want to ascribe to mankind a spiral movement, it still turns back always to that region through which it has already passed.” This is a far cry from the Christian ideal of checking life’s hard-won wisdom at the door to narc out in heaven. The “spiral” model of human life contains all and excludes nothing. It “keeps itself.”
Five years after vowing to “keep” himself on The Downward Spiral, however, Reznor opens The Fragile with an unequivocal declaration of defeat:
so impressed with all you do
tried so hard to be like you
flew too high and burnt the wing
lost my faith in everything
lick around divine debris
taste the wealth of hate in me
shedding skin succumb defeat
this machine is obsolete.
His lyrical protagonist has failed in each of the realms—man, animal, god, machine—he has tried to inhabit. Reznor’s lyrics now step away from the Romantics and toward a more Freudian vision of the mind as torture chamber and punitive God as personal sickness, observing, “The world is over and I realize it was all in my head” and “It feels like it keeps coming from the inside.” When Reznor the lyricist crosses over from Romantic to Freudian terrain, Reznor the man turns to the secular sphere—psychiatry and substance-abuse recovery—to save himself.
Six years later, the psychic distance between The Fragile and With Teeth is as vast as the albums’ opposing titles would imply. Where The Fragile found virtually no possibility in its drama of opposing selves, With Teeth finds in the impossibility of reconciliation a geyser of artistic fuel. Perhaps most impressively, Reznor orchestrates a transformation of Nine Inch Nails that doesn’t disavow any of his earlier work. He embraces the Romantics’ spiral in his ability to advance without excluding earlier stages and selves. Philosophical choice or happy byproduct of recovery? Probably both. Without intoxicants to obliterate discomfort, you’re forced to accommodate and address everything addiction enabled you to—temporarily—purge and exclude. Recovery forces a Romantic spiral on you whether you want one or not.
On With Teeth, Reznor still casts himself as commander of the fan troops in a great war; the stakes haven’t changed, but the dramatis personae have. We’ve left Gothic and Romantic frames behind, largely, for Freud’s mind-as-war model. Reznor will periodically lash outward on With Teeth—at drugs, at religion, at President Bush and the apathetic citizenry that enable him—but these moments are like pop-up storms on a record that concerns itself primarily with personal truth and responsibility. Eight out of thirteen songs lean on the verb believe as—after Gothic drama and Romantic reckoning—the mind hammers out a belief system that can keep it alive. In “Only,” the lyrical protagonist parts company with a toxic entity he no longer believes in or needs. Perhaps it’s a Christian god, or perhaps it’s the “Mr. Self-Destruct” persona that made Reznor famous:
Yes I am alone. But then again I always was. As
Far back as I can tell. I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real to begin with. I just
Made you up
To hurt myself. And it worked. Yes it did.
There is no you
There is only me
The original title for With Teeth was Bleedthrough. Reznor may have changed his mind because, outside the context of the album, the title suggests a Goth-horror aesthetic that is now a stage in Nine Inch Nails’ past. In the context of With Teeth, “bleedthrough” refers to Reznor’s newly sober, uncomfortably inclusive consciousness in which seemingly incompatible identities coexist. There is rage and conflict aplenty on With Teeth, but no longer any monster to blame.
To give up the Christian conceit of personal demons as outside invaders is to embrace a heavier but ultimately richer load. But it’s a somewhat bittersweet breakthrough, I think, if your early spirituality was shaped by The Exorcist. The movie ends, after all, with the suffering child freed from the beast, not adopting a twelve-step plan for learning to live with him.
In his controversial primer on fiction writing, John Gardner advises the miserable, misanthropic writer thus: If you see the world as a pit full of baby skulls, that’s fine; in fact, you may be seeing it clearly. But you do yourself and your world no favors by taking up residence at the edge of the pit and writing—however accurately and beautifully—tome after tome about what a pit full of baby skulls looks like. Gardner advises that we address our writing to what can be done: how is a person to stay alive in a world where there are pits full of baby skulls?
Spin Magazine observed of With Teeth, “Reznor’s not screaming into the void anymore; now he’s figuring out how to live inside it.” I’d agree—almost. I think the “void” is, like Gardner’s pit of baby skulls and the Gothics’ torture dungeons, a room in our psychic house—let’s say the psychic basement—that we aspire to live with, but not in. Put a lock on it and you’re dishonest and naïve; move your bed and your stereo down there and you’re lost. On With Teeth, Reznor’s house is still beautifully haunted. He’s accomplished something extraordinary, I think, by neither burning out nor rusting.
Nine Inch Nails’ sixth album, Year Zero, was released on April 17, 2007. Reznor offered the following as an advance description of the album:
What’s it about? Well, it takes place about fifteen years in the future. Things are not good. If you imagine a world where greed and power continue to run their likely course, you’ll have an idea of the backdrop. The world has reached the breaking point—politically, spiritually and ecologically. Written from various perspectives of people in this world, “year zero” examines various viewpoints set against an impending moment of truth. How does it sound? You will hear for yourself soon enough…