In fact, I suspect that I might be capable of something much worse

The general outrage over Mary Bale, who for no apparent reason put a cat in a wheelie bin, where it remained for 16 hours, mewing piteously, is a very extraordinary phenomenon. Of course, she shouldn’t have done it. But this isn’t just a story about someone being cruel to an animal; after all, it wasn’t really actually monstrously cruel, only moderately so. 

No, there is something more to all this; we need more of an explanation for this nine days wonder, for the hundreds of thousands of hits on the YouTube footage (the whole episode having been captured on the private CCTV of the cat’s owners). Why are we all so fascinated? Because, I suspect, we still have no answer to the big question: why did she do it?

It is worthwhile to return to Mary Bale’s own words. “I really don’t see what everyone is getting so excited about. It’s just a cat,” she said. “I was walking home from work and saw this cat wander out in front of me. I was playing with it, stroking it and listening to it purr as it stood on a garden wall. It was very friendly.

“I don’t know what came over me, but I suddenly thought it would be funny to put it in the wheelie bin, which was right beside me… it was just a split second of madness.”

What are we to make of this? After all, this wasn’t a very funny thing to do. It’s that “split second of madness” that interests me. This story, it seems to me, is a classic example of what André Gide called an “acte gratuite”. This was a term used by Gide to designate utterly unmotivated behaviour that defies routine, custom, and normal explanations. The hero of Les Caves du Vatican exemplifies it when for no reason he pushes an old man to his death from a moving train. The apparent amorality of Gide’s hero and the popularity of Gide’s novels with the young intelligentsia led to attacks on Gide as a corrupter of youth, and his books were placed on the now abolished index librorum prohibitorum.

The question I have to ask myself (as I suspect we all do) is simple: could I have put that cat in that wheelie bin? Of course we all disapprove of Mary Bale’s action. But I suspect that, all the same, I would not have been entirely incapable of performing it myself. It isn’t that I have mixed feelings about cats (we have one ourselves). But I simply do not know what I might have been capable of if my life had been other than it is.

Over 50 years ago, after we had both attended a lecture on Les Caves du Vatican, a fellow undergraduate decided on an acte gratuite in a Dublin bookshop: he stole a book entitled Ethics. That was certainly an amoral act; it was also quite funny. But he didn’t kill anyone, like Gide’s hero. I asked him at the time what he thought he was really capable of: might he ever, for instance, have been carried away like those hysterical crowds in Germany in the 1930s (for us, only two decades before) shouting “Heil Hitler”; might he even have been drawn into complicity with the Holocaust?

He indignantly, and with absolute moral certainty, denied that he ever could. But I wish I could be absolutely sure, for all my present hatred of anti-Semitism in particular, and of totalitarianism in general, that I could not. That was there, and then; this is here, and now, thank God. Meanwhile, I am not inclined to be too indignant about the now world-famous acte gratuite of Mary Bale.