The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

by Damion Searls


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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In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the unlikely story of the test’s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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804136563
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/20/2018
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 364,441
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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.

Read an Excerpt


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 his patients something to enjoy, he would naturally have mused on the holidays of his own childhood and the games he had played then: sled races, Capture the Castle, Hare and Hounds, Hide and Seek, and the game where you spill some ink on a sheet of paper, fold it in half, and see what it looks like.

Hermann Rorschach was born in November of 1884, a light-­bringing year. The Statue of Liberty, officially titled Liberty Enlightening the World, was presented to the US ambassador in Paris on America’s Independence Day. Temesvár in Austria-­Hungary became the first city in continental Europe with electric streetlights, put up not long after those in Newcastle, England, and Wabash, Indiana. George Eastman patented the first workable roll of photographic film, which would soon let anyone make pictures with “the Pencil of Nature” by capturing light itself.

Those years, of early photography and primitive movies, are probably the hardest era in history for us, today, to see: in our mind’s eye, everything then looks stiff and rickety, black and white. But Zurich, where Rorschach was born, was a modern, dynamic city, the largest in Switzerland. Its railway station dates from 1871, the famous main shopping street from 1867, the quays along the Limmat River from midcentury. And November in Zurich is shocks of orange and yellow under a gray sky: oak and elm leaves, fire-­red maples rustling in the wind. Back then, too, the people of Zurich lived under pale blue skies, hiked through bright alpine meadows dotted with deep blue gentian and edelweiss.

Rorschach was not born where his family had been rooted for centuries: Arbon, a town on Lake Constance some fifty miles east. A small town called Rorschach is four miles past Arbon down the coast of the lake, and that must have been the family’s place of origin, but the Rorschachs could trace their ancestors in Arbon back to 1437, and the history of the “Roschachs” there reaches back another thousand years, to a.d. 496. This was not so unusual in a place where people stayed put for generations, where you were a citizen of your canton (state) and city as well as country. A few ancestors roamed—one great-­great-­uncle Hans Jakob Roschach (1764–­1837), known as “the Lisboner,” made it as far as Portugal, where he worked as a designer and perhaps created some of the mesmerizing, repeating patterns for the tiles that cover the capital city. But it was Hermann’s parents who truly broke away.

Hermann’s father, Ulrich, a painter, was born on April 11, 1853, twelve days after another future painter, Vincent van Gogh. The son of a weaver, Ulrich left home at age fifteen to study art in Germany, traveling as far as the Netherlands. He returned to Arbon to open a painter’s studio and in 1882 married a woman named Philippine Wiedenkeller (born February 9, 1854), from a line of carpenters and boatmen with a long history of marrying Rorschachs.

The couple’s first child, Klara, born in 1883, died at six weeks old, and Philippine’s twin sister died four months later. After these hard blows the couple sold the studio and moved to Zurich, where Ulrich enrolled at the School of Applied Arts in the fall of 1884. For Ulrich to move to the city at age thirty-­one, with no stable income, was unusual in staid Switzerland, but he and Philippine must have been eager to have their next child in happier surroundings. Hermann was born at 278 Haldenstrasse, in Wiedikon (Zurich), at 10 p.m. on November 8. Ulrich did well in art school and got a good job as a middle school drawing and painting teacher in Schaffhausen, a city some thirty miles north. By Hermann’s second birthday, the family was settled where he would grow up.

Schaffhausen is a small, picturesque city full of Renaissance buildings and fountains, situated on the Rhine, the river that forms the northern border of Switzerland. “On the banks of the Rhine, meadows alternate with forests whose trees are reflected, dreamlike, in the dark green water,” says a guidebook from the time. House numbers had not been introduced yet, so each building had a name—the Palm Branch, the Knight’s House, the Fountain—and distinctive decorations: stone lions, painted facades, bay windows jutting out like giant cuckoo clocks, gargoyles, cupids.

The city was not stuck in the past. The Munot, an imposing circular fortress on a vineyard-­covered hill with a moat and a grand view, dating from the sixteenth century, had been restored for tourism in the nineteenth. The railroad had arrived, and a new electricity plant was exploiting the river’s plentiful water power. The Rhine poured out of Lake Constance at the Rhine Falls nearby, low but wide enough to be the largest waterfall in Europe. The English painter J. M. W. Turner drew and painted the falls for forty years, showing the water massive like a mountain and the mountains themselves dissolving in whirlpools of paint and light; Mary Shelley described standing on the lowest platform while “the spray fell thickly on us . . . looking up, we saw wave, and rock, and cloud, and the clear heavens through its glittering ever-­moving veil. This was a new sight, exceeding anything I had ever before seen.” As the guidebook put it: “A heavy mountain of water hurls itself at you like a dark fate; it plummets, and all that was solid becomes movement and life.”

After Hermann’s sister Anna was born in Schaffhausen, on August 10, 1888, the growing family rented a new house on the Geissberg, a steep twenty-­minute hike uphill out of town to the west, where Hermann’s brother, Paul, would be born (December 10, 1891). The house was roomier, with larger windows and a mansard roof, more French château than Swiss chalet, and with forests and fields to explore nearby. The landlord’s children became Hermann’s playmates. Inspired by James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking adventures, they played Pioneers and Indians, with Hermann and his friends slinking through the trees around a nearby gravel quarry and making off with Anna, the only “white woman” they had.

This was the setting of the children’s happiest memories. Hermann liked to listen to the roar of the ocean he had never seen, in a seashell a missionary relative of their landlord had brought back from abroad. He built wooden mazes for his pet white mice to run through. When he came down with the measles at age eight or nine, his father cut out enchanting tissue-­paper puppets and Hermann made them dance in a glass-­lid box. On walks, Ulrich told his children the history of the city’s beautiful old buildings and fountains and the meaning of the images they bore; he took them butterfly hunting, read to them, taught them the names of the flowers and trees. Paul was growing into a lively, chubby little boy, while Hermann, according to a cousin, “could look at something for a very long time, absorbed in his thoughts. He was a well-­behaved child, quiet like his father.” This cousin told the nine-­year-­old Hermann fairy tales—Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin—“which he liked because he was a dreamer.”

Philippine Rorschach, warm and energetic, liked to entertain her children with old folk songs and was an excellent cook: pudding with cream and fruit was a favorite with the children, and every year she would throw a pig roast for all of her husband’s colleagues. Ulrich’s own parents had fought bitterly, to the point where Ulrich felt they had never loved each other; it was important to him to create a loving home for his children, the kind he had never had. With Philippine he did. You could joke with her—light a firecracker under her wide skirts, as Hermann’s cousin remembered having happened once—and she would join in the laughter.

Ulrich, too, was respected and genuinely liked among colleagues and students. He had a minor speech impediment, probably a lisp, “which he could, however, overcome when he tried.” It made him unusually reserved, but he was kindhearted to students during exams, giving hand and head signals and whispered encouragement. “I can still see this modest man, so ready to help, before my eyes more than half a century later,” one student would recall. Or else he would spend half an hour correcting a student’s drawing, patiently making line after line, erasing the student’s wrong efforts, “until finally the picture stood before me, not differing from the model in any way. His memory for forms was astonishing; his lines were absolutely sure and true.”

Though artists in Switzerland were not trained at universities or given a liberal arts education, Ulrich was a broadly cultured man. In his twenties he had published a small compilation of poetry, Wildflowers: Poems for Heart and Mind, writing many of the poems himself. His daughter Anna claimed he knew Sanskrit—and whether he had somehow learned it or spoke fake Sanskrit to fool the kids and amuse himself says much the same thing about him.

In his spare time, he wrote a hundred-­page “Outline of a Theory of Form, by Ulr. Rorschach, Drawing Teacher.” This was not a collection of middle school lecture notes or exercises but a treatise, opening with “Space and Spatial Apportionment” and “Time and Temporal Divisions.” “Light and Color” eventually moved into “the primary forms, created by concentration, rotation, and crystallization,” and then Ulrich set out on “an orienting stroll through the realm of Form”: thirty pages of a kind of encyclopedia of the visual world. Part II covered “The Laws of Form”—rhythm, direction, and proportion—which Ulrich found in everything from music, leaves, and the human body to Greek sculpture, modern turbines, and armies. “Who among us,” Ulrich mused, “has not often and with pleasure turned our eyes and imagination to the ever-­changing shapes and movements of the clouds and the mist?” The manuscript ended by discussing human psychology: our consciousness, too, Ulrich wrote, is ruled by the basic laws of form. It was a deep and thoughtful work, not of much practical use.

After three or four years in the house on the Geissberg, the Rorschachs moved back into the city, to a new residential area near the Munot fortress, closer to the children’s school. Hermann was active, a good ice skater, and there were sledding parties where the children would link their sleds together in a long line and ride down the hill around the Munot on wide streets into the city, before there were too many cars. Ulrich wrote a play that was performed on the roof terrace of the Munot with Anna and Hermann as actors; another time, he was commissioned to design a new flag for a Schaffhausen club, and the children looked for wildflowers for him to use as models. Afterward they were delighted to look up at the flag embroidered with his design in the colors of their poppies and cornflowers. Hermann, for his part, showed skill from an early age in drawing landscapes, plants, and people. From woodcarving, cutouts, and sewing to novels, plays, and architecture, his childhood was a creative one.

Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction: Tea Leaves 1

1 All Becomes Movement and Life 11

2 Klex 21

3 I Want to Read People 29

4 Extraordinary Discoveries and Warring Worlds 38

5 A Path of One's Own 53

6 Little Inkblots Full of Shapes 65

7 Hermann Rorschach Feels Has Brain Being Sliced Apart 78

8 The Darkest and Most Elaborate Delusions 88

9 Pebbles in a Riverbed 102

10 A Very Simple Experiment 113

11 It Provokes Interest and Head-Shaking Everywhere 126

12 The Psychology He Sees Is His Psychology 150

13 Right on the Threshold to a Better Future 162

14 The Inkblots Come to America 168

15 Fascinating, Stunning, Creative, Dominant 181

16 The Queen of Tests 198

17 Iconic as a Stethoscope 208

18 The Nazi Rorschachs 222

19 A Crisis of Images 237

20 The System 248

21 Different People See Different Things 261

22 Beyond True or False 271

23 Looking Ahead 285

24 The Rorschach Test Is Not a Rorschach Test 305

Appendix: The Rorschach Family, 1922-2010 317

Hermann Rorschach's Character Olga Rorschach-Shtempelin 319

Acknowledgments 323

Notes 327

Illustration Credits 389

Index 391

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