Consider. The fan and the footballer. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum that is the beautiful game A group of students, known as "cantonistes", have been studying Eric Cantona and reinterpreted the notorious incident at Selhurst Park as an assault not on a spectator but on post-modernism itself
Humour and the English. The lads are watching television in the saloon bar of the Rat and Carrot, Wigan. The presenter introduces a documentary. "This week, we will bring you up to date with the evil men exposed in previous programmes. Stalkers. Kidnappers. Drug fiends. Spanish fishermen.

Cantona chuckles. This is a joke - a refutation of the slander current in Europe that the English can't laugh at themselves. He turns to the lads. "Get out of that!" "Rock on, Tommy!"

The lads aren't laughing. It hadn't been a joke. Cantona is embarrassed by his mistake. Self-mockery, like charm, is an act of ingratiation and submission. The French and the Germans, by laughing at themselves, are saying: "Your dad's bigger than my dad?" The English are above such things.

In Europe, humour is part of life. Politicians, artists, sportsmen - all aspire to be irreverent, to be wacky. What is France's most popular TV programme? The deplorable Ils pensent que c'est au dessus.

In France, no-one is taken seriously until he reveals his fundamental lack of seriousness. It is for this reason that French football is a game for zany comedians running in different directions in search of an ever- elusive punchline.

In England, humour knows its place. It belongs to the professional jester - men with silly haircuts and shiny suits on television; middle-aged drolls taking sideways looks at life in newspaper columns and on the radio.

The hyena. The jackass. The lion. Two of the three can laugh. But which is the king of the jungle?

It was precisely its humourlessness, its courage to be serious, which served England so well in two world wars.

And yet.

Cantona is invited to appear on A Question of Sport - a TV panel game in which sporting "personalities" vie with one another to trivialise their chosen discipline.

He considers.

The artist and the media. Has an artist an obligation to explain himself, to demean the art he serves by promoting it on a panel game? Did Samuel Beckett, wearing a brightly coloured V-necked sweater, participate in Pardonnez-vous mes culottes! Une compilation hilare des grands accidents du theatre?

"What was your most embarrassing moment, M Beckett?"

"Well, Pierre, on the opening night of Waiting for Godot in Paris, there was some restlessness in the audience during the longer silences."

Suddenly, a bell accidentally rang backstage. "Whoever it is, for God's sake let him in!" cried a member of the audience. We had to laugh!"

"That's truly remarkable, M. Beckett!"

Non! It is not imaginable. Cantona will not appear on A Question of Sport.

A moment of further consternation. Cantona and Isabelle are watching their favourite television programme, Our Friends in the North. Absentmindedly, they switch over to ITV. There is an advertising break. Gary Lineker and Gazza, the idiot-savant, appear in humorous mode during an annonce for potato crisps!

The Cantonas look at one another in astonishment. Has the European disease of irony at least entered the soul of his adopted country?

There is worse to come.

Cantona and Isabelle are watching BBC2. David Gower and Gary Lineker, in blindfolds, are trying to guess the identity of a celebrity guest - a barrel-thighed forward from rugby league. Gigglingly, they feel him up. The super-hero from rugby league retires backstage, looking suitably embarrassed.

Mon dieu! The humiliating French comedy quiz show Ils pensent que c'est au dessus has been translated!

Consider. The fan and the footballer. They are at opposite ends of the spectrum that is the beautiful game. Each is essential to the other, but discrete. This is what matters. Their difference.

And yet.

Cantona turns on the television. Two fans are slumped on a sofa, bottles of lager resting on their swollen bellies. They are the very picture of fans in a Match of the Day stupor. Except for this: these two dead-eyed youths with their leering, sneering half-knowledge of the game themselves present a football show which is more popular than Match of the Day!

The show? Fantasy Football League. Here, by some freakish act of post- modernism, the television screen has turned on itself to become the camera, recording not the achievements of Cantona and others, but the oafish, beer-stained events in a dingy bachelor flat.

The spectator has become the star.

Graham Greene has said that every serious novel should revolve around two or three conversations. So it is with the artist's life. In two or three moments of crisis, cathartic explosions will occur in order to clear the landscape for further progress.

Cantona's next game? Away to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park.

`The Meaning of Cantona', by Terence Blacker and William Donaldson, is published by Mainstream at pounds 9.99. Order direct from TBS Ltd, St Lukes Close, Tiptree, Colchester, Essex. Credit card orders on 01621 816362