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The Inkblots
Cover of The Inkblots
The Inkblots
Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing
Borrow Borrow
The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • New York Post • Sunday Times (UK) • Irish Independent
In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind: a set of ten carefully designed inkblots. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic movements of the day, from Futurism to Dadaism. A visual artist himself, Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.
After Rorschach’s early death, his test quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, and people suffering from mental illness or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.
In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.
Praise for The Inkblots
“Impressively thorough . . . part biography of Herman Rorschach, psychoanalytic super sleuth, and part chronicle of the test’s afterlife in clinical practice and the popular imagination . . . Searls is a nuanced and scholarly writer . . . genuinely fascinating.”The New York Times Book Review
“A marvelous book about how one man and his enigmatic test came to shape our collective imagination. The Rorschach test is a great subject and The Inkblots is worthy of it: beguiling, fascinating, and full of new discoveries every time you look.” —David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR • New York Post • Sunday Times (UK) • Irish Independent
In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind: a set of ten carefully designed inkblots. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic movements of the day, from Futurism to Dadaism. A visual artist himself, Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.
After Rorschach’s early death, his test quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, and people suffering from mental illness or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.
In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the unlikely story of the test’s creation, its controversial reinvention, and its remarkable endurance—and what it all reveals about the power of perception. Elegant and original, The Inkblots shines a light on the twentieth century’s most visionary synthesis of art and science.
Praise for The Inkblots
“Impressively thorough . . . part biography of Herman Rorschach, psychoanalytic super sleuth, and part chronicle of the test’s afterlife in clinical practice and the popular imagination . . . Searls is a nuanced and scholarly writer . . . genuinely fascinating.”The New York Times Book Review
“A marvelous book about how one man and his enigmatic test came to shape our collective imagination. The Rorschach test is a great subject and The Inkblots is worthy of it: beguiling, fascinating, and full of new discoveries every time you look.” —David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z
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Excerpts-
  • From the book 1

    All Becomes Movement and Life

    One late December morning in 1910, Hermann Rorschach, twenty-­six years old, woke up early. He walked across the cold room and pushed the bedroom curtain aside, letting in the pale white light that comes before a late northern sunrise—­not enough to wake his wife, just enough to reveal her face and the thick black hair spilling out from under their comforter. It had snowed in the night, as he’d thought it would. Lake Constance had been gray for weeks; the water’s blue was months away, but the world was beautiful like this, too, with no one in sight along the shore or on the little path in front of their tidy two-­room apartment. The scene was not just empty of human movement but drained of color, like a penny postcard, a landscape in black and white.

    He lit his first cigarette of the morning, boiled some coffee, dressed, and left quietly as Olga slept. It was a busier week than usual at the clinic, with Christmas around the corner. There were only three doctors to look after four hundred patients, so he and the others were responsible for everything: staff meetings, visiting the patients on twice-­daily rounds, organizing special events. Still, Rorschach let himself enjoy the morning’s solitary walk through the clinic grounds. The notebook he always carried with him stayed in his pocket. It was cold, though nothing compared to the Christmas he’d spent in Moscow four years earlier.

    Rorschach was especially looking forward to the holiday this year: he and Olga were reunited, they would be sharing a tree as husband and wife for the first time. The clinic celebration would be on the twenty-­third; on the twenty-­fourth, the doctors would carry a small tree lit with candles from one building to another, for the patients who couldn’t join in the communal ceremony. On the twenty-­fifth the Rorschachs would be free to go back to his childhood home and pay a visit to his stepmother. This he tried to put out of his mind.

    Christmas season at the asylum meant group singing three times a week, and dance classes run by a male nurse who played a guitar, a harmonica, and a triangle with his foot, all at the same time. Rorschach didn’t like to dance, but for Olga’s sake he forced himself to take lessons. One Christmastime duty he truly enjoyed was directing the holiday plays. They were staging three this year, including one with projected images—­photographs of landscapes and people from the clinic. What a surprise it would be for the patients to suddenly see faces they knew on the screen, larger than life.

    Many of the patients were too far gone to thank their relatives for Christmas presents, so Rorschach wrote little notes on their behalf, sometimes fifteen a day. On the whole, though, his patients liked the holidays as much as their troubled souls allowed. Rorschach’s adviser used to tell the story of a patient so dangerous and unruly she had been kept in a cell for years. Her hostility was understandable in the restrictive, coercive clinical environment, but when she was taken to a Christmas celebration she behaved perfectly, reciting the poems she had memorized especially for January 2, Berchtold Day. Two weeks later she was released.

    He tried to apply his teacher’s lessons here. He took photos of his patients, not only for his own sake and for the patient files, but because they liked posing for the camera. He gave them art supplies: pencil and paper, papier-­mâché, modeling clay.

    As Rorschach’s feet crunched the snow on the clinic’s grounds, his thoughts on new ways to give...
About the Author-
  • Damion Searls has written for Harper’s, n+1, and The Paris Review, and has translated the work of authors including Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, and five Nobel Prize winners. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and Cullman Center fellowships.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 30, 2017
    In this clear and well-illustrated study, writer and translator Searls shares the histories of Swiss psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach as well as his eponymous test’s evolution and reception. As Searles notes, Rorschach’s test was not totally original; one precedent was the work of Justinus Kerner, a 19th-century German Romantic poet and doctor. Rorschach’s genius lay in attending to patient-sensitive specifics, including those of psychotics, and in developing an interpretative code that revolved around how the patient saw movement, color, and form in the inkblots. After Rorschach’s 1922 death at age 37, his test saw widespread use in America during the psychoanalytically oriented 1940s and ’50s; it was given to every student entering Sarah Lawrence College starting in 1940 and the army used a multiple-choice version after Pearl Harbor. However, it had fallen in popularity by the 1970s, eclipsed by the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and other personality tests. Despite its occasional abuse, the Rorschach regained some of its popularity around the turn of the millennium. Searls dutifully shows how the test added a whole new visual dimension to the emerging field of psychology in general, and the study and analysis of personality in particular. Illus. Agent: Edward Orloff, McCormick Literary.

  • Kirkus

    November 15, 2016
    A history of 20th-century psychology focused on the life, work, and legacy of the inventor of the inkblot test.Translator, essayist, and fiction writer Searls (What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, 2009, etc.) became fascinated by the "rich and strange" set of inkblots that, he discovered, are still used for psychological assessment. His investigation into the life of their creator, Swiss physician Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922), led to a trove of material collected by a biographer who died before he could write his book; along with other material, that archive informs Searls' richly detailed, sensitive biography of Rorschach's short life and long afterlife. A student of Eugen Bleuler and Carl Jung, Rorschach was trained at a time when "an orgy of testing" dominated psychology. The son of an artist, with artistic talent himself, Rorschach was alert to modernist art movements, which shaped his ideas about the power of visual images to reveal personality and the power of culture to shape perception. He worked assiduously to craft precisely the symmetrical, mysterious, suggestive images that comprise his test, and he devised "a single psychological system" of evaluation that considered the viewer's response to Movement, Color, and Form. Although he admitted that "it is always daring to draw conclusions about the way a person experiences life from the results of an experiment," when he compared his evaluations of patients against other doctors' diagnoses, he was encouraged about his accuracy. As Searls admits, Rorschach never convincingly explained how and why the inkblots worked. Unfortunately, his system, and the permutations that followed as generations of psychologists attempted to standardize it, proves difficult to follow in the author's otherwise engrossing narrative. Searls is stronger when characterizing the "feuds and backbiting" that the test inspired among practitioners in America, where it "was a lightning rod from the start," and Europe, where, for example, it was applied to assess Nazis on trial at Nuremberg.Searls shows persuasively how the creation and reinvention of inkblots has reflected psychologists' scientific and cultural perspectives.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    February 15, 2017
    Searls portrays Hermann Rorschach (18841922) as a man of great accomplishment and greatly unfulfilled potential due to his untimely death, at 37. He made a considerable contribution to the then-burgeoning field of psychoanalysis with his soon-to-be ubiquitous inkblots: 10 symmetrical amorphous shapes utilized as a tool to delve into a person's subconscious mind. Used for everything from party games to attempting to establish whether there is such a thing as a Nazi mind, the Rorschach test has endured for nearly a century, even as it drifts in and out of favor within the psychoanalytic community due to an ongoing debate over how the patient's responses should be interpreted. Very little has previously been known about Rorschach's private life; Searls now fills in many blanks, drawing a more rounded portrait of the Swiss psychiatrist. From his parents' money and health problems to his school nickname, Klex, from klexen, meaning to dabble in painting, to his decision to follow science rather than art, through to his marriage, illness, and death, Rorschach's genius is apparent, and his famous inkblots ever fascinating.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2017, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    September 15, 2016

    A biographer with fellowships from the Leon Levy Center of Biography at CUNY and the Cullman Center at NYPL, Searls tells the story of Hermann Rorschach and the famous inkblot test he developed in 1917 at a Swiss asylum.

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from February 15, 2017

    Writer and translator Searls's book describes and analyzes a major tool in psychology, "probably the ten most interpreted and analyzed paintings of the twentieth century." Now out of copyright (they were created in 1917), these images are widely available, but the parlor game is not the test, and vice versa. Medical insurance covers testing and, besides its clinical importance, the Rorschach (as it is known) is widely used by employers. Not a pass-or-fail examination, the Rorschach aims to measure imagination and personality. Its creator, Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) at 12 lost his mother to diabetes; soon his father married one of his wife's half-sisters, then died in 1903 when Hermann was 18, with three younger siblings. Reader-friendly, this book has 24 chapters, including "The Queen of Tests" and "Iconic as a Stethoscope." A key player involved is John Exner (1928-2006), credited with resurrecting this "most powerful psychometric instrument." VERDICT An important book that reminds us of the benefits and costs of generalizing about the most complicated matter on Earth: the human mind. [See Prepub Alert, 8/22/16.]--E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    February 15, 2017

    Writer and translator Searls's book describes and analyzes a major tool in psychology, "probably the ten most interpreted and analyzed paintings of the twentieth century." Now out of copyright (they were created in 1917), these images are widely available, but the parlor game is not the test, and vice versa. Medical insurance covers testing and, besides its clinical importance, the Rorschach (as it is known) is widely used by employers. Not a pass-or-fail examination, the Rorschach aims to measure imagination and personality. Its creator, Hermann Rorschach (1884-1922) at 12 lost his mother to diabetes; soon his father married one of his wife's half-sisters, then died in 1903 when Hermann was 18, with three younger siblings. Reader-friendly, this book has 24 chapters, including "The Queen of Tests" and "Iconic as a Stethoscope." A key player involved is John Exner (1928-2006), credited with resurrecting this "most powerful psychometric instrument." VERDICT An important book that reminds us of the benefits and costs of generalizing about the most complicated matter on Earth: the human mind. [See Prepub Alert, 8/22/16.]--E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • New York Times Book Review "Impressively thorough... part biography of Herman Rorschach, psychoanalytic super sleuth, and part chronicle of the test's afterlife in clinical practice and the popular imagination... Searls is a nuanced and scholarly writer... genuinely fascinating."
  • David Grann, author of The Lost City of Z "A marvelous book about how one man and his enigmatic test came to shape our collective imagination. The Rorschach test is a great subject and The Inkblots is worthy of it: beguiling, fascinating, and full of new discoveries every time you look."
  • Harper's "This excellent book begins as a biography and becomes, when [Rorschach] suddenly dies of a ruptured appendix at the age of thirty-seven, a cultural history of his creation."
  • Discover "Searls provides a detailed recounting of a man whose creativity and curiosity about the human mind drove him to create a new way of 'reading' people -- an innovation that was quickly embraced, and misunderstood, by the masses."
  • Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed "What an amazing book. The Rorschach inkblot is like the enigmatic corpse in a mystery novel, and Damion Searls is the passionate and encyclopedic detective who unpacks the intricate and twisted story of how it came to be. By the end, one feels that Rorschach and his test are the key to understanding the whole 20th century. Searls is a wonderful writer: funny, compassionate, and unfailingly attentive to all the magical coincidences (or are they?) and twists of human history."
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The Inkblots
The Inkblots
Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing
Damion Searls
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