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is called a Rorschach test – and I assumed, like most people, that the test was the equivalent of truth serum: out-of-date, obsolete, unscientific.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