Featured Fellow : Wendy Lesser

Wendy Lesser is a journalist, author, and the founding and current editor of The Threepenny Review. She has written one novel and nine nonfiction books, on subjects as diverse as the Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich and murder as a sociological phenomenon. Most recently, she’s turned her attention to the renowned architect Louis Kahn. The resulting book, You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, is an engrossing portrait of both the man and the artist. We asked her about her research process, and the book’s unique structure.

Wendy Lesser is a journalist, author, and the founding and current editor of The Threepenny Review. She has written one novel and nine nonfiction books, on subjects as diverse as the Soviet-era composer Dmitri Shostakovich and murder as a sociological phenomenon. Most recently, she’s turned her attention to the renowned architect Louis Kahn. The resulting book, You Say to Brick: The Life of Louis Kahn, is an engrossing portrait of both the man and the artist. We asked her about her research process, and the book’s unique structure.


You’ve written about so many diverse topics, including music, murder, the act of re-reading, and the artistic gaze. What made you decide to now pursue architecture?

 

It wasn’t about finding topic I had not done yet. My current editor wanted me to do another biography [after finishing the one on Shostakovich] and I was resisting, because the Shostakovich book had been so hard. But then I went to the Four Freedoms Park [at Roosevelt Island in New York, designed by Kahn]. I had already seen Nathaniel Kahn’s movie [about his father] so I knew who Kahn was, and I knew he had an interesting life, but something about the Four Freedoms Park spoke directly to me and I knew I wanted to do something on its creator. Little did I know that it would be an even harder project than the Shostakovich one.

 

Why was the Kahn biography more difficult to work on than the Shostakovich one?

 

With the Shostakovich book, I was using other people’s materials, and I just left it up to what was already out there, which was quite a lot. With the Kahn book, I had to go back to square one with everything. I talked to people who had never been on the record, I travelled to visit his works all across the world, including in Bangladesh, I sorted through his office papers, journals, letters, and so forth. The level of detail was incredible, and sorting through it all took a lot of time.

 

What was it about the Four Freedoms Park that inspired you to research its creator?

 

I was inspired by the narrative impulse behind it. I’m very attracted to artists who I consider to be narrative artists. Even artists you wouldn’t initially consider to be narrative, such as Shostakovich, have an narrative element to their creations. When I walk through the [Four Freedoms] park and follow its path, contained within it is a beautiful landscape trapezoid where you get to ‘the room,’ as Kahn called it. I felt like he’s taking us on a journey and we are meant to have an experience that changes over time, and is meant to surprise us at different moments. That suspicion that that is how he worked in general was confirmed when I started the research.

 

The structure of your book is very interesting. Apart from starting with his death, which we’ll talk about in a minute, you intersperse the biographical narrative with sections that focus on his most famous creations. What made you decide to do this, and why you do you call them “in situ”?

 

Those portraits of his work are also narratives. They were originally called interludes, but my editor intelligently pointed out that interludes suggested “small” and “by the way”-type interjections, when actually the works were central to the narrative process. So we decided to change name and came up with the “in situ” because it is an architectural term: Architects use it to say that a design was made on site. I also thought that the name fit because those chapters are written in present tense and the works themselves are presently being experienced by the reader..

 

Let’s talk a little bit more about the opening chapter of your book. You guide the reader through the last day of Kahn’s life in an almost novelistic fashion, and the incredible level of detail you provide made me feel like I was reading a detective novel. After his death, you return to a chronological narrative, and the “in situ” descriptions of his famous works. What made you decide to pursue this structure?

 

There’s definitely a forensic quality to the opening death scene. I found so much that was new about the death. I went to the architectural archives at UPenn, and the archivist brought over this huge unopened box that no one had opened before. It contained Kahn’s suitcase from the day of his death and his secretary’s log as they searched for him, xeroxes of obituaries, and so much more that I ended up using in the chapter. The archive didn’t include the police report [from his death] so I went to the police headquarters in New York and tracked it down. There were a lot of rumours floating around about how he died.

 

While I was writing the book, I was reading a mystery that was very cleverly withholding information. When I first wrote the chapter, I included his death early on, but then I delayed his death until the end of the chapter. That whole structure was inspired by a mystery novel.

 

Overall, my first thought was to have the book run in complete reverse order, because when I read other books about him, by the time they get to his late period – and in Louis Kahn’s case that’s a very important period – the man himself has started to disappear. I didn’t want to give the impression of a man hiding behind his work.

 

But when I was trying to write the book backwards, it was just undoable. It was really difficult to introduce important characters and so forth. But I thought I could still put the death first if I did an intro. But I always wanted to end with the little boy who became Louis Kahn. So the last chapter in the book is called “Beginning,” and after writing about Kahn’s [many love] affairs, the last scene shifts back to a moment of innocence when things are possible, things are opening up. That’s how the beginning ended up in the end and the ending at the beginning.


 

Did you have to do a lot of independent study on architecture while you were researching and writing this book? Was that an additional difficulty for you?

 

We’re all familiar with architecture. We live amidst it all the time. It affects us, we have reactions to it, we all have some sense of how the physical environment around us shapes us, so it was not so much of a leap for me as music was. Music is a much more ineffable subject than architecture, which just sits there and lets you deal with it on your own time. Some people practice architecture in a very profit-oriented way, as in: “This is my client and he wants a giant skyscraper and I don’t care how it fits with the rest of the buildings around it,” but Louis Kahn wanted to create things that had a relationship to the space they were in. He was very interested in workers’ housing, how streets and public spaces operated in cities, and how a building would affect the buildings around it. He was a public architect in the sense that a lot of the buildings he did were always accessible to the public or were designed for the public good. I found these two little pamphlets that he wrote in the 1940s, and they are all about planning. He writes about how to get together with neighbours and plan how a city’s structure will affect your life. Even in later life, when he was doing more singular structures, he was still very interested in a work’s relationship to the communal good. The Bangladesh National Assembly, for example, is viewed as an emblem of democracy by the Bangladeshis.

 

Did you learn anything during your research and writing process that surprised you?

 

I learned that all the women and children knew about each other [Kahn had multiple affairs and children with other women while still married]. The children had met each other, and for all her married life, Esther [Kahn’s wife] knew there were these other two children. The two mothers of the other children knew each other and spent time with each other. It was a weirdly extended family.

 

Why do you think the women in his life accepted this arrangement?

 

Well, women said he was an extraordinary man and that he didn’t live a normal life, and you had to accept that. Anne and Harriet [Kahn’s mistresses] were both designers and they had a feeling that they were participating in Kahn’s work. I don’t think they were victims at all. They were participants in this experiment that was a very unconventional way of living. Esther was less willing. She was not a designer, and she supported Louis Khan for a huge amount of his career. My guess is that there was a huge amount of resentment on her part, but she had invested so much in this guy. Philadelphia knew about it. Their social circles knew about it. It was widely known but never talked about in print. It was one of those well kept public secrets.

 

You visited all of the sites of his most famous works, including the buildings he designed in Bangladesh and India. What was that like?

 

In Bangladesh, they are very proud of the National Assembly. Even in New York I was meeting Bangladeshi taxi drivers and they knew the name of the person who built their capital building. It’s considered a great symbol for democracy, and when you go into the building there’s a little shrine of him with pictures of Lou, of him both as an old and a young man, as well a model of building and little sketches he made. They’ve spent money keeping the building up, so it’s in very good shape. The sad thing is that you used to see people doing exercises on the lawn, playing sports, and just using the space, but due to security restrictions in Bangladesh, the public is now barred from the grounds of the building. It’s terrible, what was a public building in the way that Lou envisioned it has now become this huge empty thing. The grounds around it are empty.

 

What were some of the biggest obstacles you encountered while writing and researching the book?

 

Harriet Pattison [one of Kahn’s mistresses] is the only surviving person he was involved with, and she never agreed to speak to me in person. Anne and Esther were already dead, so I couldn’t speak to them, but I would have loved to speak to Harriet. She did send me emails in response to very specific questions I had, but she is writing her own book about her life with Lou. I wish there was more of Harriet in my book, but it was an unavoidable situation and I worked around it as much as I could.

 

Was there a certain style of biographical writing that you followed as a model, or a particular biography that served as an inspiration to you?

 

I’m not frankly much of a reader of biography, but my friends Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan wrote one of Wilem de Kooning [De Kooning: An American Master], which I thought was a wonderful biography. I borrowed their idea of creating separate space in which you could talk about artwork by itself, separate from the life. They did that with the paintings. You have to find new structure for every book that fits its subject matter. For the Shostakovich book, music was my inspiration. In Kahn’s case, architecture was the inspiration.

 

Did you feel that you had to make a case for Louis Kahn as a notable person, not only in the history of architecture but simply as a notable individual as well?

 

With Shostakovich I had to make a case for him as an artist as opposed to this “either or” person [as either a supporter or detractor of the USSR]. With Lou it seemed to me that the architecture stood for itself. You can’t go into his buildings and not think that he’s one of the greatest of the 20th century. He’s also such a complicated figure, personally and psychology, that I thought to myself, okay, you better do this [biography] in very hands-off kind of way, you don’t understand him so you have to lay everything out in way that the reader can make up their own mind. But people ended up feeling like they really understood him. At times, when I finished one chapter where he’s involved with all these women, I was in a rage, I was furious at him, and I said to myself, he didn’t do anything to you! I felt really emotionally engaged but I made a purposeful efforts to not use word “I” once. In all my other books, my “I” is all over the place, but not here. I really wanted his life and his work to speak for itself.


Interview by Luisa Rollenhagen

Featured Fellow : Damion Searls

The writer and translator Damion Searls has translated numerous works from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch literature, including books by Proust, Rilke, Nietzsche, Modiano, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Alfred Döblin, Jon Fosse, Elfriede Jelinek, and Nescio. He has also edited an abridged edition of Thoreau’s Journal. Searls grew up in New York City, studied German philosophy at Harvard and American literature at UC Berkeley, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, and the NEA. We spoke to Searls about his new book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing, the first-ever biography of Hermann Rorschach and a cultural history of the Rorschach test.

The writer and translator Damion Searls has translated numerous works from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch literature, including books by Proust, Rilke, Nietzsche, Modiano, Robert Walser, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, Alfred Döblin, Jon Fosse, Elfriede Jelinek, and Nescio. He has also edited an abridged edition of Thoreau’s Journal.

Searls grew up in New York City, studied German philosophy at Harvard and American literature at UC Berkeley, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, and the NEA.

We spoke to Searls about his new book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and The Power of Seeing, the first-ever biography of Hermann Rorschach and a cultural history of the Rorschach test.


How did you come to this project?

I came to it from the generalist side. I’m not a psychologist or a personality-testing crusader – I had heard about the Rorschach test just like anybody else. I knew it as a cliché in the newspapers – where everything is called a Rorschach test – and I assumed, like most people, that the test was the equivalent of truth serum: out-of-date, obsolete, unscientific. But as I got drawn in I began to see that the story was more complex than that.

Rorschach’s influence is still with us in all these different places: in science, in every newspaper we open, and all over visual culture. Who was the person who invented this? His name is right in the name of the test, of course, but I realized I knew nothing about him.

 

Rorschach lived and worked during a fascinating time and place. How do those circumstances factor into the story?

Rorschach was born in 1884 in German-speaking Switzerland. Switzerland is a bit of a punch line for being boring; there is the famous Orson Welles monologue in The Third Man – “five hundred years of peace and prosperity and what did they invent? The cuckoo clock.” In fact it was an impressive time and place. You had Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, the Dadaists, Vladimir Lenin waiting for his chance to go back to Russia. There was lots of ferment, partly because so many of these brilliant people were fleeing from World War I, but there was also a lot of inherent modernity in Switzerland – a flowering of innovation in science, medicine, art.

 

Rorschach was also obsessed with Russia. Why?

All of Europe was obsessed with Russia. The Bolshoi ballet was the toast of Paris, everyone was reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Tolstoy, in particular, was one of the most famous people in the world, not primarily as a writer but as a Gandhi-like social reformer and pacifist.

Part of the allure of Russia was the idea that it was this very backward, autocratic country, but at the same time filled with wandering religious mystics and writers and artists and all this primal cultural energy. So it fascinated a lot of people – Rorschach more than most.

In France, where Rorschach lived briefly while studying French, he became friends with Ivan Mikhailovich Tregubov, a close friend of Tolstoy’s. Tregubov was a personal and professional inspiration, and that inspiration influenced Rorschach’s decision to try to help people’s souls as a psychiatrist. When he went to Zurich to start at the university, there were thousands of Russians there – even a whole neighborhood called “Little Russia.” A lot of them were women who wanted to go to university – they weren’t allowed to in Russia or other European countries. Rorschach’s wife, Olga Shtempelin, was one of these Russian medical students in Zurich. For him, Olga epitomized Russianness: passionate feelings, self-expression, the opposite of a buttoned-up, modest Swiss guy.

Culturally there was a lot going on in Russia, much of which Rorschach witnessed personally while living there. Psychoanalysis was big. Not just ideas that had spread there from Vienna, but independent developments in Russia that then spread to Western Europe. It was a very boundary-crossing cultural moment, and he was fascinated by it intellectually as well as emotionally.

 

Why has the Rorschach test become such a cultural icon?

My book is a biography of Hermann Rorschach but also a “biography” of the inkblot test, and the second part of the story is really an American story. The test didn’t take off in Switzerland or Germany. Hermann Rorschach himself died in 1922, shortly after publishing the test. It was in America that the test became defining in the field of clinical psychology as well as emblematic outside of psychology, in the culture at large. In the 1960s the test was called as iconic for psychologists as the stethoscope for doctors.  

The popular perception of the test – as a shorthand for situations where any response is valid, where you can see anything you want to see – actually dates to 1960s America. It was not how the test was seen from the beginning. It was during the ’60s – the breakdown of recognized authority, the rebellion against establishment figures telling you what do – that the test came to take on that meaning. “New York City is a Rorschach test for writers.” “LBJ is a political Rorschach test.” That was something American culture after the ’60s wanted and needed a metaphor for, and it found it in the inkblot test.

 

How has psychology changed since Rorschach’s time? And how has that affected the test?

A lot has happened; this is the whole second half of the book. Probably the most significant shift was the passing of the mid-century heyday of Freud and all this, in retrospect, rather ham-fisted psychoanalysis. That was the tendency in interpreting the Rorschach test too: “If you see a pall of black smoke on this card you must be suicidal”; “If you see a male torso instead of a female torso you must be homosexual,” and so on. And there was a reaction against that in the late ’60s and ’70s. This is when Freudian analysis fell out of favor as an actual therapeutic technique. There are still Freudians out there today but they are no longer the mainstream. 

The Rorschach test went the opposite direction. The key thing, which Rorschach himself emphasized, was that this is a test that we score. It is not just for free association – Rorschach himself said the inkblots weren’t very good for free-associating to, because they are too specific. There are concrete guidelines for coding and tabulating the results. If you use color in your response the answer gets coded one way, if you describe the entire card the answer is coded as a Whole response, while if you just describe part of it it’s a Detail response, that sort of thing. There are various factors that get scored objectively. For all that he was a visual person and an artist, Rorschach was also a scientist. He was very opposed to the test being used unless it was scientifically sound. He himself wrote that any time there is a conflict between what the examiner intuits and what a crude formulaic score indicates, “something that unfortunately occurs relatively often in the test,” you should always go with the scores because they are more scientific and more reliable.

So the post-’60s reinvention largely went back to Rorschach’s own approach. And by this point the test really is more scientific and quantifiable – thousands of people have looked at these same ten images. Their responses have been collected and tabulated. Your answers can be compared to everyone else’s answers. It really is more objective a measure than reflecting on what you dreamed last night.

 

Did you discover anything during your research that particularly surprised you?

Two things. The first is something about Hermann Rorschach: it turns out he was a great guy. You often find that brilliant figures are a little out there in some way, but Rorschach was a really solid person: hardworking, modest, a family man, a good father, supportive of his younger sister, kind to his patients.

But that was never really known. In addition to the archival material that a few scholars have looked at, it turns out that there was a huge cache of interviews about Rorschach put together by someone in the ’60s who became interested in Rorschach and tracked down and interviewed all these people who were close to Rorschach. He wanted to write a biography but was never able to. So no one had seen these interviews except for him and me, sixty years later. This was a gold mine for a biographer – an interview with the cousin who used to read Rorschach fairy tales when he was nine because he was a dreamy boy, that kind of thing. This material made it possible to write a very warm-blooded and full biography of Rorschach as a person.

The other big surprise for me, and for many other people I talk to, is that the test is real: it works, it is still used. It’s not a gimmick where a doctor shows you a smear of ink and you find yourself saying, “I see the bloody murder weapon in the third kitchen drawer” – it’s a real psychological test.

Contrary to popular belief, it is less about what you see than about how you see. For example, if your ability to integrate complex information in a way that makes sense is outside the normal range, you might have cognitive problems. That’s actually pretty plausible. This is one example of a concrete finding that can come from the test. It’s really about assessing how you process the visual world – Rorschach himself originally called it a “perception experiment,” neutrally studying how people see things.

In terms of the controversies about the test, the most well-known take is a 2003 book called What’s Wrong with the Rorschach? Any time a journalist is writing about the test and wants to talk to an expert, it’s usually one of the coauthors of this book, who says yes, the Rorschach has been debunked but unfortunately many people still use it. But that’s hardly the last word, or entirely unbiased either. In 2013 there was a major, massive article in the leading psychology journal which put the Rorschach test on solid scientific footing. The aspects of the test that didn’t have strong empirical backing were taken out and the elements that worked were solidified. Even the co-authors of What’s Wrong with the Rorschach? called it a fair and unbiased analysis and lifted their call for a moratorium on the test.

So in fact the Rorschach is on stronger footing now than it ever was before. People who say things like “I don’t believe in the Rorschach because I believe in science” are probably not up on the latest science. I think part of it is that we are suspicious of visual intelligence. Anything art-based has to be foofy. Pictures are just subjective and arbitrary. But in fact the Rorschach test is a synthesis of art and science – it is visual science. And it has stood the test of time even in the narrow confines of empirical science.

 Interview by Oliver Conroy

 

 

Featured Fellow: Noah Isenberg

Noah Isenberg is Professor of Culture and Media at the New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts. He's written for publications such as BookforumFilm CommentParis Review Daily, and The New York Times. His latest book, We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie, was published in February 2017 and explores the legacy of the cult classic.