The infinite game of Rennes-le-Château
IS THE STUDY OF RENNES-LE-CHÂTEAU AN ELABORATE GAME?
• JUNE 20, 2011
Is the study of Rennes-le-Château and the ongoing revision of its mythology an elaborate game? Although irrelevant at first sight, this simple question prompts the development of an interesting model, applicable to many other areas of so-called "mysterious archeology."
Rennes-le-Château is a small village in the Languedoc, France, where in the late XIX century, a priest became very rich, thanks to a supposed treasure found in the region. From the 1950s onwards, many have speculated about the nature of the treasure, the place has become a tourist attraction of great interest and the research community has increased, especially in France and England. A mythology has sprung up around the affairs of the parish priest of the village, involving many different disciplines: from alchemy to ufology, from the study of sacred geometry to millenarianism, from psychic archaeology to biblical exegesis. The relentless overlapping of layers on a core of well-documented history could be described, today, as a sort of Wiki collaborative project, evolving in many different directions. But in what sense can the community of Rennes-le-Château fans be compared to a group of "players"?
Finite and Infinite Games
In his book Finite and Infinite Games, the religious scholar James P. Carse distinguishes between games, based on two broad categories:
There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. A finite game is a game that has fixed rules and boundaries, that is played for the purpose of winning and thereby ending the game. An infinite game has no fixed rules or boundaries. In an infinite game you play with the boundaries and the purpose is to continue the game. (1)
Monopoly, the battleships and chess games are "finite": all allow only one winner, have a clearly defined beginning and end and you play to win. Being involved and contributing to the mythology of Rennes-le-Château, on the contrary, constitutes an "infinite game". In the words of Carse:
An infinite game has no boundaries. [...] In an infinite game, anyone can participate. (2)
In the game of Rennes-le-Château "participate" is to narrate its story, add details, publish articles, discuss on web forums, create maps, suggest new links, propose extensions into new disciplines, write books, organize meetings.
Finite and infinite games share many similarities. Just as in the popular game Risk, the game of Rennes-le-Château offers a variety of maps, and even a real-life setting that is in scale 1:1 with the story. As in role-playing games, Rennes-le-Château offers a multitude of books full of clues, paintings, inscriptions, characters and historical backgrounds, offering a rich background of information and a powerful immersive experience. As with Sudoku, not all combinations are allowed: the characters may intertwine in space and time with relative ease, there could be any type of relationship, but it is difficult to directly connect an individual who lived in the XX century with another born two centuries earlier. But freedom of action can transform a singer into the lover of a priest, a housekeeper into his daughter, a brother into the victim of a homicide.
Both types of game are governed by rules, but in a finite game those rules cannot change; on the other hand, the rules of an infinite game must be changed continually throughout the game:
If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite. (3)
The game of Rennes-le-Château continues to provide amusement only if there is an underlying mystery, an unsolved puzzle to be explored. The end of its infinite game is constantly threatened by anyone who claims to own the "ultimate solution" of its problem. Any contribution academically sound is immediately rejected by the large community of players, because every demystifying statement closes at least one of the possible extensions of the game, thus threatening the very purpose of the infinite game, which is continue indefinitely. So, when the threat is revealed:
the rules are changed to prevent anyone winning the infinite game. (4)
The gaming community has demonstrated, to date, that it can resist any attempt to end the game; in order to analyze the dynamics of these "crises", it would be sufficient to re-read the violent reactions that followed the publication in 1990 of the book by Jean-Jacques Bedu, Rennes-le-Château: Autopsie d'un Mythe. In speaking of an "autopsy", Bedu was implying that the game was dead: he was punished by exclusion from the research community and his book was completely ignored. In Italy, a similar reaction was triggered by the contribution of Mario Iannaccone Rennes-le-Château, una decifrazione, published in 2004. (5) Anticipating this reaction, Iannaccone was able to suggest alternative paths of investigation - defining Maurice Leblanc as the "starter" of the big game; this information allowed some players to continue playing along this route.
James P. Carse points out another key difference between finite and infinite games. In finite games, surprise is not a good element:
If we are not trained to deal with each of the possible moves of an opponent, we have certainly more chance of losing. Therefore we will most likely win if we are able to surprise our opponents. (6)
Being surprised can imply defeat. In infinite games, on the contrary, the surprise is a trigger:
Infinite players play their game always expecting to be surprised. When the surprise is no longer possible, they do not play anymore. The surprise may end the finite game, but is the reason for the continuation of the infinite game. (7)
Evolution of a Mythology
Fifty years on, the legend of Rennes-le-Château has undergone so many changes, which ensure a state of constant surprise. In 1956, the treasure of the village was attributed to Queen Blanche of Castile. In the 60s, strange maps appear, covered with geometric designs and scrolls, helping the researchers to find it. In the 70s, an esoterical association - the Priory of Sion - was born: according to the mythology, it knows the truth about the nature of the secret: the treasure loses any physical connotations and is identified with a Merovingian bloodline. In the 80s a best-selling book - The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (8) - introduces an exciting heretical element: Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and their descendants found refuge in the French village. In the 90s, the geometrical theories develop: Rennes-le-Château is at the heart of a monstrous symbolic grid connecting towers, standing stones, caves and natural relief. Furthermore, maybe UFOs use the area as a privileged place to land. The new millennium began with the publication of a hugely successful novel, which has its roots in certain elements of the Rennes story: The Da Vinci Code. A few years later, a group of film producers said they found a tomb containing the body of Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, a group of Roman coins and relics of all kinds. In recent years, those who are afraid of the Mayan prophecy about the end of the world located, near Rennes-le-Château, a safe haven: the Bugarach mountain, a key element in the mythology of the village. This, they believe, would be the "fixed point of the cosmos" and its inhabitants will not die at dawn on December 21, 2012.
The Italian... contribution (?)
In Italy, the myth of Rennes is continually threatened by boredom. After the publication in 2001 of a reference book for fans - Rennes-le-Château (9) by Giorgio Baietti - Italian players did not provide significant contributions to the development of game. Mariano Bizzarri had attempted a curious "guenonian" reinterpretation of the events of the village (10), but our local community has not been able to offer interesting developments to the great puzzle.
Recently, the infinite game has received new impetus, thanks to a recreational current born in our country, which has been very prolific: the goal is to find connections between the Italian cities and Rennes-le-Château. One of the more curious aspects of this phenomenon is the fact that cities are increasingly identified within a few kilometers from the residence of the proposer, and for this reason, the Italian approach to the subject has been considered a form of typical Italian "provincialism".
Giorgio Baietti, born in Liguria, now living in Monferrato, linked Rennes-le-Château with the Italian town of Altar (in Liguria) and Saliceto (in Monferrato). Claudia Cinquemani Dragoni lives in the Maremma area of Italy, and linked Rennes-le-Château with a series of Maremma locations. Marcuzio Isauro lives in Treviso and found links with Rennes-le-Château in Saint Lucia di Piave (near Treviso). Alberto Schonwald lives in Romagna and - coincidentally - he found a coded inscription in Faenza (in Romagna) referring to Rennes-le-Château. Mario Farneti lives and works in Gubbio, and (together with Bruno Bartoletti) he is the author of an article titled "Gubbio: the Italian Rennes-le-Château".
This trend reveals a general attitude of envy towards our French cousins: to find many small Italian Rennes-le-Château is a sublimed form of the typical Italian sentiment of hostility towards France, through claiming a role of our country in the Great Universal Conspiracy. The French village is 550 km from the Italian border (too far for some), outside of any daily view; at the time of Francis of Assisi, life-size Stations of the Cross were built on the hill behind the Italian towns: they offered, to those who could not afford the trip to the Holy Land, artificial reproduction of the places where Jesus lived. Following a similar pattern, the "Italian Rennes-le-Châteaus" are like the Venice in Las Vegas, compared with the real Italian city.
The true nature of these links is clearly highlighted by Umberto Eco in his book Foucault's Pendulum (1988), which well describes the absolute creative freedom of these authors and the complicity of an audience of enthusiastic players who welcome any new contribution, each being a move toward an indefinite continuation of the game. I myself - now a decade ago - had joked that Italian provincialism offered a myriad of connections between Rennes-le-Château and my village, Torre Canavese.
Eco described the endless recreational possibilities of the myth of Rennes-le-Château in an article published in the Italian magazine L'Espresso, writing about the three authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail:
Their bad faith is so evident that an aware reader can enjoy their work as if it were a rolegame. (11)
Most serious scholars experience enormous difficulties in trying to interact with the community of fans of Rennes-le-Château: they ignore the element of fun connected with the experience, which is not immediately obvious; however strong their arguments are, they cannot affect the overall mythology: the game must continue at the expense of historical truth and any contrary evidence.
Yet the explicitly "playful" elements are countless: books abound, the historical enigmas are full of paintings to be interpreted as elaborate puzzles, long inscriptions and coded messages are read as if they were crossword puzzle, maps are covered with dots to be connected to form figures, anagrams are used to look for deeper meanings...
The problem is not in the game itself: there is no trace of irony in the many Italian authors proposing connections to the French village, whose participation in the endless game of Rennes-le-Château is largely unconscious. In fact, at this rate, all the Italian cities will become "the Italian Rennes-le-Château", reaching a typical Facebook situation:
in any social network you receive many requests for connection, even by strangers. Simply put, many users play childishly to have the greatest possible number of contacts. The result of this race for links, at least, is a network where everyone would be connected with everyone else, creating something that would have more or less the same value and the actual benefit of a telephone directory. (12)
In the aforementioned novel by Umberto Eco, the players realize that the Foucault pendulum can be unplugged from the vault of the Conservatoire in Paris and plugged into any other place on earth. It goes on working, so the museum in Paris has nothing special itself. Nevertheless, the character Diotallevi comments:
the feeling is that in life one has attacked the Pendulum in many different places, but it has never worked, and there, at the Conservatoire, it works so well... And if there were key points in the universe? (13)
Rennes-le-Château is, to me, a key point. And in the context of its infinite game, I have chosen the role of preserver of its original nature.
Many thanks to Marcus Williamson, who helped me in translating the original article in English.
1.James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games, Ballantine Books, New York 1986.
5.Mario Iannaccone, Rennes-le-Château, una decifrazione, SugarCo, Milano 2004.
8.Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, Henry Lincoln, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Jonathan Cape, London 1982.
9.Giorgio Baietti, Rennes-le-Château, CET Editore, Torino 2001.
10.Mariano Bizzarri e Francesco Scurria, Sulle tracce del Graal, Edizioni Mediterranee, Roma 1996.
11.Umberto Eco, "La bustina di Minerva", in L’Espresso, 23.8.2001, page 166.
12.Fabio Metitieri, Il grande inganno del web 2.0, Laterza, Bari 2009, page 126.
13.Umberto Eco, Il Pendolo di Foucault, Bompiani, Milano 1988.