Draining the bitter cup

Is civility outdated? A letter on drinking Fernet.

Nicholas Babich

January 6, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2023 proposition, “Civility is outdated.”

Dear editors,

I lately saw the light about civility in an unlikely situation. Read for yourselves.

“Fernet-Branca,” he said. “This is a highly regarded amaro; you ought to try it.” I don’t drink that much of the hard stuff myself, but I am happy to try something new when a trusted friend recommends it. His word was good. I took the bottle of liqueur home. I enthroned the Fernet in my cabinet. Between my ears, fantasies swirled like champagne of the many cultured appraisals I would make of the refined drink.

“Fernet?” my friend asked. “I’m surprised he gave you this. It’s good—complex and herbal—but it is a bit bitter for your taste.” Indignant at the slight against my puissance in the drinking department, I snatched the bottle from him and poured the Fernet. I dropped it into a snifter, neat and unadorned. He and his wife watched, incredulous laughter ready to dart from their sophisticated lips. I defied them. I drank deeply.

I felt the Fernet course over my tongue, down my throat, simmer and then steam in my gut. There was an aroma of anise and Alpine bitter herbs. I tasted mint, so much mint, until my only sensation was the pained memory of over-strong mouthwash. And then, like the flash of a broken lightbulb, everything went black: I could taste no more.

I have known bitterness many times in life. I have suffered disappointment. I have eaten arugula and drunk cheap, black coffee. But in these, the bitterness is a brief trial, after which there is a great reward. I have suffered many disappointments, but neither did they last forever. But Fernet-Branca! O, Fernet! It is complex, certainly. Sophisticated, yes. Good in a cocktail—provided the bartender does no more than wave the open bottle near a drink—indubitably. But to taste the drink alone lends a new, but correct, meaning to that old Biblical phrase, to “drain the bitter cup.”

True bitterness, unmixed and tasted in itself, is darkness. Bitterness is an absence, or, rather, it is a presence that makes all else seem absent. It does not add, but diffuses and subtracts. I do not suggest that bitterness is unnecessary in this life. We would be too proud and foolish if we were never disappointed. We would die from sugar highs if there were no dark chocolate and Guinness stouts. But bitterness does little on its own, though it may test and purify things greater than itself.

Some may say that civility is outdated. I vehemently disagree, and I think my experience with Fernet-Branca has made it clear why. I have had sympathy for the idea that we have moved beyond civility. It is polite, dusty, insincere. But is it? Civility may be outdated, insofar as certain customs have changed over time. Tipping one’s hat is hard to do without a hat, and COVID has almost killed handshakes. But civility is more than simply a sum of customs, past or present. Civility is an attitude.

Civility is the refusal to allow bitterness to dominate our lives, to refuse to give negativity the last word, even when it seems inevitable. Civility is the refusal to allow self-pity and brooding to turn the lights out on public discourse. Civility does not ignore bitterness (if there was no bitterness there would be no civility!); rather, civility puts bitterness in its place. The sweetness of civility is not mere language. It is a common language. It is a light in dark places. And without this common bond of civility, it would be too easy for us all to drain our bitter cups alone and in the dark.

Nicholas Babich

Nicholas Babich is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval English literature at the University of Notre Dame.