PRINT September 2017


Damion Searls’s The Inkblots

Card VIII of Hermann Rorschach’s test, 1921.

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, by Damion Searls. New York: Crown, 2017. 416 pages.

IT’S IMMEDIATELY RECOGNIZABLE: a black-and-white inkblot, symmetrical across the vertical axis, depicting nothing in particular and thus anything at all. Or maybe not quite anything. Because even though it’s silly, we can’t help thinking about genitals. Or rather, we think we probably should be thinking about genitals, that that’s what the image wants from us, but we also feel like we probably shouldn’t, because this can’t actually be serious, can it? Funny thing, the unconscious.

A Rorschach test consists of ten of these inkblots, each printed on a card: five black-and-white, two black-and-red, and three vaguely pastel. In the first part of the test, subjects are shown the cards one by one and asked to describe what they see. In the second part, subjects are handed the cards again and prompted to elaborate on their earlier responses. All of this is meticulously recorded, encoded, calculated, and compared against normalized scores to generate insight into the subject’s personality. The “Intellectualization Index,” for example, tells us about the subject’s tendency to use abstract ideas to ward off difficult emotions. The index is arrived at by doubling the number of “abstract” descriptions of what the subject sees, then adding this to the sum of “artistic” and “anthropological” descriptions. In Rorschach algebra: 2Ab + (Art + Ay). The mean score in North America is 2.17; a score of 5 or more is cause for concern. A complete test can measure more than a hundred such variables—some thematic, but many of them having to do with the subject’s perception of formal characteristics. The reader who notices that this system seems very much like its own form of abstraction or “intellectualization” would not be entirely wrong. As historian of science Peter Galison has argued, the Rorschach represents a turning point in the modern effort to translate subjectivity into objectivity.

The Rorschach is still administered all over the world, although not nearly as often as it once was—in its glory days, a million times a year in the US alone. Astonishingly, The Inkblots is the first full-length biography of the test’s inventor, Hermann Rorschach, in any language. Damion Searls, a highly regarded translator and essayist specializing in European modernism, has given us a lovely and loving portrait of the man, who turns out to be by far the most sympathetic figure in the history of his profession. Searls follows him from his impoverished childhood in late-nineteenth-century Zurich to his medical studies at the world-famous Burghölzli hospital—think Bleuler, Jung, and Spielrein—through his experiments in the psychology of perception, and finally to his search for a test that would provide rapid, reliable insights into the unconscious. The test was intended to be used in hospitals and other settings where there was no time for the open-ended free association of psychoanalysis proper (which Rorschach, a cofounder of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society, also practiced).

The test was a scientific work but also a work of art—or at least the work of an artist, which partly explains the enduring appeal of its images. Rorschach’s nickname as a teenager had been Klex, the German word for “inkblot”; he earned the moniker for his artistic skills, which he had picked up from his painter father. In fact, Rorschach’s inkblots were not blots at all, but made with a brush and composed to achieve just the right degree of abstraction. Rorschach had, after all, come of age in the Zurich of the Grand Café Odeon and Cabaret Voltaire. Searls does an excellent job of reconstructing how the inkblots emerged within the context of Zürcher visual culture. “Even if we decide to describe Futurism as madness and nonsense,” Rorschach wrote in an unpublished essay from 1915 or so, “we still have the obligation to find sense in that nonsense.” Which is not unlike what the takers of his test would be encouraged to do over and over again.

Rorschach published his inkblots and the principles of their interpretation in 1921. He died the following year, at thirty-seven, from a ruptured appendix. The second half of Searls’s book is about the test itself, both as a psychological instrument and as a cultural phenomenon. It became a standard part of everyday life in hospitals, schools, barracks, and prisons—there’s a fascinating chapter, for example, on the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials and the controversies surrounding the existence, or not, of a “Nazi personality” that might be revealed, or not, by testing Nazi prisoners (Hermann Göring reportedly enjoyed the test immensely). The test also found a place in popular culture. By midcentury, Searls writes, “an inkblot was what the unconscious looked like,” as iconic as the analyst’s couch or the cigar that was sometimes just a cigar. And while it has largely been replaced in clinics and courtrooms by other kinds of psychological (and neuropsychological) testing, it lives on as a metaphor. “I’m a Rorschach test,” Hillary Clinton famously told Esquire in 1993. Earlier this year, a Washington Post headline declared: “The Latest Political Rorschach Test: A Picture of Ivanka Trump Seated at the Oval Office Desk.” It’s easy to take this metaphor to mean that people will see whatever they want to see. But the lesson of the test—and it’s an important one—is precisely the opposite: There are some things we can’t help but see, no matter how hard we try to avoid them. Especially if it’s a photo of Ivanka seated in the Oval Office.

Ben Kafka is an associate professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University and a psychoanalyst in private practice.