Erica has a life that is less than perfectly fulfilling and, some would say, even dull and not always happy. Well, isn't that true of a lot of people (you might think)? But stick with Erica, for she's the subject of our parable and representative of more than just herself. So, her less than satisfactory life Erica lives as best she can, and one of the things she does is: she reads. She reads fiction, lots of it, and she's always happier reading than when, for any reason, because of any interrupting circumstance, she can't read for any length of time. And Erica also listens to music: Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert; Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk; Waylon Jennings. Listening to music improves her day and some of her nights.
Now, what are we to say about literature and music in Erica's life? That they are a gift, or (if you should hesitate before one possible connotation of that) a resource - one that makes her life better than it otherwise would be? Or should we say, instead, that music and literature are an escape; that they divert Erica from attending to the other things in her situation that make it duller or her unhappier than it and she otherwise would be? Impossible to answer without knowing more of the detail, more about the precise shape of her circumstances, about whether there are fixable problems that she avoids facing, and about how much of what is restricting or depressing her is difficult or impossible to remedy. It would be a rash person, however, who would say on the basis of mere generalities about Erica's life that reading and listening to music were a distraction from more serious purposes, rather than enjoyments integral to that life and which would have been, or would remain, part of it even in the most untroubled of times and conditions.
Step on to the stage, now, Terry Eagleton. One can only assume that Terry had his tongue firmly stuck to the inside of his left cheek when he wrote this sport as the opium of the people column for today's Guardian. One can only assume it because it's hard to read these self-parodying and left-parodying words of his without letting go an involuntary guffaw:
If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several light years ahead.
Yeah, nice one, Terry; and flagged even more explicitly as being deliberately excessive and ironic when he writes in concluding, 'Nobody serious about political change can shirk the fact that the game has to be abolished.' Still, there are a couple of points of interest here, and I take them up because, tongue-in-cheek or not, this is standard fare in a certain (philistine) type of leftwing cultural criticism.
The first point I have already mooted in the above parable of Erica. For Erica now stands for the football-following masses, those men and women 'whose jobs make no intellectual demands [and who] can display astonishing erudition when recalling the game's history or dissecting individual skills'. These are the people for whom football is, according to Eagleton, an opiate. And yet, see what he himself says about football that might be thought to be of a rather positive kind: it provides people with an 'experience of solidarity' and provides 'displays of sublime artistry by men for whom the word genius is sometimes no mere hype'; it 'blends dazzling individual talent with selfless teamwork, thus solving a problem over which sociologists have long agonised'; the game 'also mixes glamour with ordinariness in subtle proportion'; and it 'enrich[es] the aesthetic lives' of people who, Eagleton suggests, might not have much of an aesthetic life but for that; football, in sum, 'offers its followers beauty, drama, conflict, liturgy, carnival and the odd spot of tragedy'. Well, sheesh - why not then just bring it on? It sounds from Eagleton's account, all his qualifying asides notwithstanding, that along with other sports football may be something that for those who love it improves the world and their lives; rather than their enjoyment of it standing in the way of utopia. You know, rather like Mozart, or Austen, or Chekhov, or Hitchcock.
Second, this standard trope of philistine leftwing criticism of sport sits uncomfortably beside another theme that is common within the tradition: here social dissatisfactions are not always or necessarily channelled into the pursuit of socialist change; they can take forms that are most unwelcome to socialists, like the embracing of political reaction, the growth of racist prejudice and hatreds, criminality and so forth. How is it possible for the leftwing cultural critic to know, just in the abstract, that what love of football diverts people from is working for the cause of which he approves rather than those uglier manifestations of social dissatisfaction which he deplores? Perhaps he doesn't really know but simply avails himself of what is most convenient rhetorically. In any case, football and the other great sports loved by so many will be seeing off cultural criticism of this kind for a good long time to come, and that is something to be celebrated.