This one is a bit of a cheat. Yes, I will be presenting you with a mystery here, but I will also be reviewing the documentary film Resurrect Dead, which sums up and explores the mystery of the Toynbee tiles far better than I ever could. The film is available on Video On Demand (at least until the end of November on my cable carrier) and iTunes. I highly recommend it.

But what are the Toynbee tiles? you ask.

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Sometime in the early to mid-1980s handcrafted linoleum tiles began appearing in the streets of major American cities. Mostly Philadelphia at first, the tiles have in subsequent years appeared in two dozen American cities as well as four in South America. The tile pictured above was found in downtown Washington, D.C. They mostly bear some variation on the same message:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN Kubrick’s 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER.

Toynbee is thought to refer to the historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, whom Stanley Kubrick consulted with when preparing for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Toynbee once wrote in his book Experiences:

Human nature presents human minds with a puzzle which they have not yet solved and may never succeed in solving, for all that we can tell. The dichotomy of a human being into ‘soul’ and ‘body’ is not a datum of experience. No one has ever been, or ever met, a living human soul without a body… Someone who accepts—as I myself do, taking it on trust—the present-day scientific account of the Universe may find it impossible to believe that a living creature, once dead, can come to life again; but, if he did entertain this belief, he would be thinking more ‘scientifically’ if he thought in the Christian terms of a psychosomatic resurrection than if he thought in the shamanistic terms of a disembodied spirit.

And if you’ve ever seen the film 2001, you know there’s some weird mamajama stuff going on at the end of it, once the surviving astronaut reaches Jupiter. The tilemaker seems to have combined these ideas—and probably some others—into a belief system which includes some kind of resurrection of the dead. This resurrection seems to depend on human beings believing it’s possible for their spirits to live on, so it’s vital to the tilemaker to get the word out: As you believe, so shall it be. His (for lack of a confirmed gender) belief is so ardent that he’s trying to spread the word through this remarkable means, mostly because he doesn’t believe he can get the message out any other way. Often his messages contain elements of conspiracy theory with a profound distrust of mainstream media, especially John Knight Ridder of Knight-Ridder. There’s also a strong element of anti-Semitism in the tilemaker’s beliefs/tiles.

The film, Resurrect Dead, is a great whodunit. It follows Justin Duerr, artist and man obsessed with the identity of the tilemaker, as he and his fellow investigators painstaking seek out clues. The director, Jon Foy, paces the film impeccably, keeping the excitement of the hunt at a steady drumbeat, even though it takes years of poking, prodding, and searching to yield answers. This is a fascinating exploration of obsession—of the filmmakers as well as the Toynbee tilemaker. There is a kind of redemption at the end, though I’m not sure I quite buy the final “confrontation.” It’s difficult sometimes to know what is fact and what is merely the will to believe. But then, that’s what the Toynbee tiles are all about, isn’t it? And Resurrect Dead is also about the longing after mysteries, about that special electric intensity they cause in human minds, and how sometimes the very best mysteries are the ones that are never completely solved.

Resurrect Dead Trailer from Resurrect Dead on Vimeo.

Websites you may wish to peruse:

http://www.resurrectdead.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toynbee_tiles
http://www.damninteresting.com/the-mysterious-toynbee-tiles/