Book Review: The Inkblots
Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing
by Damion Searls
According to Damion Searls, in his thoroughly engrossing new book The Inkblots, the reserved and deeply intellectual pioneering Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach was both a rising star in his profession and something of an outsider, and his outsider status was only heightened when he published his strange book Psychodiagnostik in 1921. His professional colleagues looked on the book with confused dismay, in large part owing to the presence in its pages of the famous inkblots. And before Rorschach, who could be a dogged and charismatic advocate when he set his mind to it, was able to do much in the way of explaining his work, he died, in April of 1922 at the age of 37 (“In a way it is a beautiful thing, to leave in the middle of life,” he groaned at the end, “but it is bitter”).
And yet, his work is immortal. People who’ve never heard of the man have heard of his famous inkblots. The inkblots themselves have entered the common cultural visual language, showing up everywhere from New Yorker cartoons to comic books, and the genius of Searls’ book is his decision to spend as much time on the story of the inkblots as on the young man who dreamed them up. Thanks to Searls’ easy, learned readability, it’s a toss-up which story is the more interesting. On the one hand, readers get a heartfelt (and groundbreaking: Rorschach has never had a better extended biographical treatment in English) portrait of the man, curiously diffident yet willful, magnetic to friends, a hungry autodidact; on the other hand, readers also get plenty of very insightful ruminations on the nature and meaning of the famous inkblots, which Searls is surely right to characterize as some of the most-scrutinized paintings of the modern era. The near-universal awareness of the inkblots, Searls warns, ought not to dull our appreciation of their innovative power:
It has always been tempting to use the inkblots as a parlor game. But every expert on the test since Rorschach himself has insisted it isn’t one. They’re right. The reverse is true, too: the parlor game, online or elsewhere, is not the test. You can see for yourself how the inkblots look, but you can’t, on your own, feel how they work.
The result of these combined narratives is, cumulatively, quietly amazing (as are the book’s photographs, including the book’s cover showing a detail from Rorschach’s 1910 wedding photo, which vividly reminds readers that this famous name was once not only a famous man but a young one). The book presents bright-light fresh appraisal of Rorschach’s contribution to his craft, and Searls is consistently at his fascinating best when discussing the test itself, those weird pictures that defy both rational assessment and rational dismissal:
Seventeen years after Hermann Rorschach’s death, his inkblots were reframed as the ultimate projective method and as a new paradigm of modern personality, both in psychology and in the culture at large. The Rorschach and our idea of who we are coalesced around a single symbolic situation, something like this: ‘The world is a dark, chaotic place. It has only the meaning we give it. But do I perceive the shape of things or create that shape? Do I find a wolf in the inkblot or put one there? … I, too, am a dark, chaotic place, roiled by unconscious forces, and others are doing to me just what I am doing to them.’