By Abbie LeBlanc
With a run-time of one hour and ten-minutes, Netflix bills Nanette as one of its original comedy series. Commentators have dubbed it anything but “comedy;” instead, their classifications range from “anti-comedy” to “stand-up tragedy.” In addition to being a provocative and innovative piece of media, Hannah Gadsby’s performance addresses many of the fundamental questions about art that Aristotle discusses in his Poetics. Like Aristotle, Gadsby is deeply concerned with the power art possesses to bring coherence to our lives. However, for Aristotle, the coherence provided by narrative art serves as the basis for philosophical inquiry, as contradictions and misrepresentations within a piece become an invitation for reflection. Gadsby, on the other hand, perceives a serious danger in allowing certain narratives to shape our perspectives, as omission and fabrications in art can become tools to exclude and marginalise others. The development of judgement is crucial to both Aristotle and Gadsby’s account of art; however, for Aristotle, this is a judgement tied to philosophy, while Gadsby calls for a judgment rooted in empathy to mediate our stories.
While Nanette takes a form that would have been unfamiliar to Aristotle, Gadsby adheres to Aristotle’s fundamental precept that art should be a coherent representation of life. Nanette is about a single and complete action, as Aristotle claims all comic, epic, and tragic poetry must be (1450b33). The necessity of coherence in narrative art appears to be a self-evident assertion. If one were to encounter a series of statements that were in a random, illogical order, one would be hard pressed to call it a story. By nature, most stand-up comedy would not meet this requirement of having a beginning, middle, and end, as they are collections of wandering anecdotes, maybe connected by a humorous segue. Gadsby’s performance differs because all of her stories center upon reframing events to give greater agency to the storyteller. The action of the show is “a broken woman who has rebuilt herself” taking control of her story. This broad definition of a single action is permissible, as both the Iliad and the Odyssey combined detail the events of a single action (1462b9–11). Just like Homer’s epics, removing any single anecdote from Nanette would “disturb and dislocate” the unity of the single and complete action that is the whole, as each of Gadsby’s stories has its own call-back built into the script (1451a34). Aristotle notes that life, on its own, does not possess this kind of unity (1451a19). Humans take pleasure in representations because representations allow us to “understand and work out what each item is” (1448b16). Moreover, by representing life through coherent narratives, one can use particular situations as a means to grapple with universal truths (1451b6). These narratives, thus, provide the basis for all understanding and all philosophical inquiry, according to Aristotle.
Gadsby, on the other hand, is not concerned with truth: she is concerned with the political consequences of narratives. Take, for example, her rapid-fire opening where she describes jokes from earlier in her career: “lots of cool jokes about homophobia—really solved that problem.” One such joke, based on a real-life experience, was about Gadsby being misgendered. A man, supposing Gadsby to be flirting with his girlfriend, threatens to assault her. However, when it is revealed that Gadsby is in fact a woman, the man apologises, claiming he mistook her for “a fucking faggot.” The audience laughs as Gadsby mocks the man’s ignorance. However, around seventeen minutes in, Gadsby stops these jokes, explaining that her early comedy was built on self-deprecation. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins?” she asks. “It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do this anymore.” Gadsby then proceeds, with a seamless segue, into a series of jokes about gender-norms, artfully shifting the audience’s focus from jokes about her identity to jokes about the societal binaries that dictate her identity to be “gender not-normal” in the first place. Gadsby recognizes, as Aristotle does, that the stories we tell become the narratives we use to make sense of the world, of life, and of our own identities.
Fifty minutes later, Gadsby returns to her anecdote about being misgendered. She informs the audience that while it was, “a very funny story,” this was only because she edited the real-life event; she created a false representation of it. Upon revealing this omission, Gadsby now tells the actual ending of the story. The young man comes back, realizing his mistake, and assaults Gadsby because she is “a lady faggot.” The audience does not laugh—Gadsby does not let them. “That is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate,” Gadsby says. This act of violence is a direct result of the stories told to these children, and how they learned to make sense of the world through them. Gadsby condemns our modern storytelling for allowing harmful and destructive narratives to proliferate.
Aristotle is aware of this dangerous power possessed by poetry; however, he does not seek to regulate it. Almost to the contrary, he directs poets to look to Homer in order to learn “the right way to tell falsehoods” (1460a19). The way poets should tell falsehoods, he writes, is through the fallacy of affirming the consequent. Poets want to make it clear that B follows from A; thus, when they insert B the reader will assume A is present—but this is false. This deception is necessary because a storyteller cannot simply lie and compromise their authority; they must trick readers and spectators into misapplying their own reason. Aristotle then turns to the “bath scene,” in Book XIX of the Odyssey, as an example of a falsehood well-told. In this scene, Penelope calls for an old servant to bathe an unfamiliar newcomer. This servant—Odysseus’ nurse from his childhood—recognizes the stranger to be Odysseus. Attempting to preserve his ruse, Odysseus tells the nurse that he merely looks like the missing king. However, when the nurse sees a distinctive scar, she realizes the truth. The fallacy of affirming the consequent in this case would seem to be the nurse’s assumption that B—the presence of the scar—means A is true—that the stranger who looks like Odysseus really is Odysseus. Yet, what would normally be a fallacy reveals the truth. Notably, when the nurse sees the scar, the narrative is briefly interrupted with a recollection of how Odysseus got the wound. The memory goes all the way back to Odysseus’ maternal grandfather giving the newborn Odysseus his name, which means “son of Pain.”  It then details the much later visit Odysseus paid to his grandfather where he was injured during a boar hunt. The anecdote reveals more about Odysseus’s character—the man of lies, disguises, and pain—than it does about how to tell falsehoods. Instead, Aristotle has directed his readers’ attention to a passage in which a story reveals the truth in the face of a falsehood.
This peculiar tangent can be reconciled with the rest of Poetics when one considers the importance of judgement in relation to poetry for Aristotle. Specifically, he advocates for scrutinizing contradictions in poetical works, “in the same way as arguments rebutting a philosophical position” (1461b16–17). Furthermore, to determine if something is good or bad in poetry, one must look “not only at the actual deed or words, but also the identity of the person saying or doing the thing, the person to whom [they] said or did it, plus the occasion, the means and the motive” (1461a6–8). In directing his reader’s attention to this puzzling section of the Odyssey, Aristotle is calling for both his writing and Homer’s to be understood in light of their context and their contradictions. Essentially, he is providing a guide for how to approach all textual art, from Homer to the Socratic dialogues, and possibly even the Poetics itself. By following this guidance, readers will develop their capacity for judgement. Aristotle seems to imply that by developing this capacity for philosophical judgement in relation to poetry readers will be able to approach the truth, despite—and perhaps necessarily through—the falsehoods told by poets.
It is on this subject of judgement that Nanette challenges Poetics. Gadsby sees quite clearly the falsehoods mimetic artists have told—artists of the likes Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Pablo Picasso. However, in casting her judgement on these artists, Gadsby is not as optimistic as Aristotle. The falsehoods told by these individuals and those like them ultimately serve to exclude people like herself from having a place in the world. Gadsby says, “art history taught me there’s only ever been two types of women: a virgin or a whore.” Within this binary, Gadsby finds no place for herself and her “masculine, off-centre, lesbian situation.” Likewise, Gadsby is critical of the mythology built around figures like Picasso. Particularly, within Picasso’s image as a “passionate, virile, tormented genius, man, ball sack,” there is no room for his misogyny and its consequences. This representation of Picasso allows for people to eschew the fact he slept with an underage girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and allow for Picasso’s claim she was in her prime, just as he was in his, to go unquestioned. As Gadsby later shouts, “a 17-year-old girl is just never, ever, ever in her prime. Ever!” Gadsby renders judgement on these falsehoods, on these stories, on these representations of life, and her conclusion is political: we cannot allow for these representations to dominate. This appears to be why she claims Nanette will be her last comedy set, as she will not contribute to this exclusionary and abusive institution of storytellers.
However, Gadsby’s words need to be reconciled with the occasion of her speech: she is articulating her judgement of comedy through comedy—or something like it. As she tells the audience, particularly any men who may feel persecuted by her performance, “this is theatre, fellas.” This is a representation of the real and debilitating damage that has been done to Gadsby in her life. Yet, despite the fact that this damage has been in part caused by the stories we tell, Gadsby actions reinforce the importance of storytelling in the process of healing from trauma. Gadsby uses art to highlight the limits of art; yet, when scrutinizing this contradiction, the importance of art to Gadsby’s understanding of human nature is evident. Indeed, Gadsby claims that stories are something we share, that connect us, that cure us. For this reason, she sought to tell her story properly to “people with minds of their own”—people who are capable of making their own judgements. Her last words on stage are not a joke—instead, they are a retelling of Vincent Van Gogh’s story. Early in the show, she explains that, contrary to what some amateur art aficionados might think, Van Gogh’s mental illness did not spur him to make beautiful art. Van Gogh actually took medication to deal with his mental illness, paid for by an older brother, which had the side effect of causing him to experience the colour yellow very intensely. When Gadsby first tells this story, she suggests that “perhaps we have the sunflowers precisely because Van Gogh medicated!” Now, as she ends her show, she reframes this story again, asking the audience, “Do you know why we have the sunflowers? It’s not because Vincent Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a connection to the world.” Gadsby suggests that through the particular stories we tell, we can begin to empathize universally. Both Gadsby and Aristotle understand stories to be the fundamental building blocks upon which we build our understandings of reality. Through these stories human beings create coherence, and through judging these stories human beings can learn. However, it is on this question of judging our stories that Gadsby and Aristotle begin to differ. Aristotle suggests that, through their falsehoods, stories may be able to teach individuals the proper, philosophical judgement. From particular lies, universal truths can be articulated. By contrast, Gadsby suggests that we need to develop a kind of political judgement to mediate our stories. Her performance is hopeful in suggesting that this judgement can still be cultivated through storytelling; however, it requires a shift. Rather than using our stories and judgements to seek truth, we need to seek empathy. The understanding of art embodied by Aristotle and Gadsby is not the same; they are potentially diametrically opposed. However, despite this conflict, Gadsby and Aristotle are participating in the same conversation about the nature of art, and what it means in relation to human life.
. Cassie da Costa, “The Funny, Furious Anti-Comedy of Hannah Gadsby,” New Yorker, 02 May 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-funny-furious-anti-comedy-of-hannah-gadsby; Andrew Kahn, “Stand-Up Tragedy,” Slate, 11 July 2018, https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/hannah-gadsbys-netflix-special-nanette-is-powerful-anti-comedy.html.
. See John Mulaney, Kid Gorgeous at Radio City (Netflix, 2018); Tig Notaro, Happy To Be Here, (Netflix, 2018).
. Gadsby, Nanette, 01:05:08–14.
. John Herman Randall, Jr., Aristotle (New York, NY: Colombia University Press, 1960), 290. This universal quality in narrative art leads Aristotle to claim “poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history” (1451b5). Randall argues that, “Herodotus in verse would still be merely ‘history,’ not poetry; it would remain an account of particular facts, while poetry is of the nature rather of universals, of what such a man would probably or necessarily say or do. Poetry is just the kind of thing Thucydides puts into the speeches of his characters: Thucydides is clearly from Aristotle’s point of view a true poet.”
. Gadsby, Nanette, 00:09:45–51.
. Gadsby, 00:010:10–11:22.
. Gadsby, 00:17:40–18:17.
. Gadsby, 00:19:11–18.
. Gadsby, 00:58:55–59:58
. Gadsby, 00:59:59–01:00:10.
. Dorothy Sayers, “Aristotle on Detective Fiction,” English 1, no. 1 (1936): 31.
. See Homer, Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1996), XIX.384–544
. Homer, Odyssey, XIX.464.
. Silvia Carli, “The Love Affair Between Philosophy and Poetry: Aristotle’s Poetics and Narrative Identity,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy (2015):153 n.4. This revelation is in line with Carli’s suggestion that the Poetics is unique in Aristotelean thought as it allows for the narrative construction of identities, offering an avenue to answer the question, “who is it?” Working from other texts in Aristotle’s corpus it is possible to answer questions about what a person is, such as if they are morally virtuous as per Nicomachean Ethics; however, Poetics is unique in this exposition of who a person is.
. Gadsby, Nanette, 00:46:31–47:05.
. Gadsby, 00:47:36–48:00.
. Gadsby, 00:51:32–42.
. Gadsby, 01:04:40–47.
. Gadsby, 01:05:41–57.
. Gadsby, 01:07:14–18.
. Gadsby, 00:33:20–35:08.
. Gadsby, 01:07:40–57.