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Photo: © Paul Barbera
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.
Hermann Rorschach died far too young. It was 1922, and he was only thirty-seven. Stricken with peritonitis as a result of a ruptured appendix, the brilliant Swiss psychiatrist had only published his famous inkblot test the year before. He left behind his wife and two children, an asylum full of patients, years’ worth of research, and the test, whose entrée into the world of psychiatry he had painstakingly shepherded.
Little did he know, as Damion Searls explains in his lively and engaging new book The Inkblots: Herman Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, the test would capture the public’s imagination and continue to be utilized long into the future.
Since Rorschach’s death, Searls writes, the blots have been used not only by mental health practitioners but by the military, in schools, in the court system, and in popular culture. They are a tool for assessing perception, but more than merely focusing on what one sees in the shapes on the cards — bats, butterflies, pelvic bones, you name it — the test is a window into how one sees.
Searls recently spoke with Penguin Random House about Rorschach the man, the remarkable history and impact of the inkblots, and what it means for the world that we all perceive reality in our own unique and divergent ways.
PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:What is the Rorschach test and how does it work?
DAMION SEARLS: There are ten and only ten inkblots that a psychiatrist named Hermann Rorschach made 100 years ago. It’s not that you make your own or that the doctor makes their own. It’s that they’re actually specific. He was an artist as well as a psychiatrist, and he experimented with trial and error to figure out which ten in which sequence works the best. So the person giving the Rorschach test will hand you the cards one by one and say, “What might this be?” or “What do you see?” And you give however many answers you want to give, and the answers are then scored. In other words, it’s not so much about, do I see a printer or a fax machine or a telegraph? That’s not so important. What matters is, do you see a picture in the whole card or just a part? Do you see it as kind of moving and alive or sort of frigid and dead? That kind of stuff. So by giving codes to each answer that you can add up or divide or multiply, you get these scores. The thing about the Rorschach test is that it’s not just art interpretation. It actually yields numbers that can then be studied statistically and compared to other test results and proven to be reliable for measuring certain things.
PRH:In the book, you explore the core idea of Rorschach’s work: that different people see differently, and the differences are revealing. Can you elaborate?
DS: The thing about the Rorschach test is that everyone’s familiar with what they think it is. We’ve all seen the movies or the TV shows where if you see the fluffy bunny, you’re the good guy, and if you see the axe murderer, you have a dark heart. But it’s not actually about that. What it’s really much more about is how you see, which makes a lot more sense. It actually sounds plausible that if you can’t put a complex collection of parts together into a whole in any way that makes sense, you might have problems. And if you give answers that nobody else ever gives, maybe you’re creative or maybe you have some cognitive difficulties recognizing what there is in the world. So I think when you look at it as more about how you see, the whole project starts to be more plausible. It’s not like some magic mind reader where you reveal your inner soul.
PRH:The power of the inkblots is directly related to the idea of empathy, which you explain is quite a recent concept. How has the meaning of empathy evolved and how does it relate to Rorschach’s work?
DS: It turns out that empathy is about one hundred years old. In the 19th century, aesthetics was part of psychology because what “aesthetic” means is how things are sensed or felt. That’s why an anesthetic is something that makes you not feel anything. So it was a question for psychologists: Why do we react to things in certain ways? And a young man named Robert Vischer was interested in trying to figure it out. It makes sense that if we see a painting of a crying baby, that gives us an emotional reaction. But what if we just see two lines? How can they seem harmonious? Or a sunset? Or a sonata? If there’s no human emotional person that we’re looking at, then how can we have an emotional reaction to it at all, because there’s just nothing there?
His answer was, as human beings we put part of ourselves into the world and that’s what we connect to. In other words, we feel our way into a scene even if there are no people there — and that’s how we then think that (for example) it can be happy or sad music, or conflicting or dramatic lines. This was a new theory of psychology and it proved very influential, and when it started to get translated into English, the German word for “feeling into” something was translated as empathy. So sympathy is feeling, which is pathos; feeling with someone else is sympathy. But empathy is feeling into something else or someone else. So it wasn’t about kindness and altruism and empathy in the way we usually understand it now at all. It was about the fact that we’re not machines that are taking in inputs and then calculating responses to them. We react to the world emotionally and by feeling in both directions.
For the Rorschach test, that dynamic turns out to be really key because it’s not just about analyzing these inkblots in some machine(-like), visual-recognition way. It’s about engaging with them — do you see them as alive and moving or not? So the whole way you react to the cards either does or does not show this process of feeling your way into them.
PRH:Why is it important that the Rorschach test is visual?
DS: I think whether you’re pro- or anti-Freud, it does change things to remember that he was a word person. He would sit you on the couch and make you talk, and listen to what you say or don’t say, and pay attention to slips of the tongue — Freudian slips — and it’s all words and that’s great. But not everyone is a word person, and we all are very visual people. Our brains evolved that way. We are today living in a very visually saturated culture of screens and images. And I think that the whole development of the Rorschach test in a way kind of came out of left field within psychiatry because it’s visual, and even today I think seems marginal because it’s visual. I think the reason people have such knee-jerk skepticism about the Rorschach test is because of an underlying kind of skepticism that visual stuff matters. You know, it’s just art, or it’s just opinion. There’s no sense of visual intelligence. In the same way that you can be a better or worse musician, you can have better or worse visual intelligence, but that’s usually not given its due.
I say in the book once or twice that you can manage what you want to say, but you can’t manage what you want to see. Visual experience really just taps into something very primal in all of us, and so it makes sense that if you design certain kinds of visual images well enough, it will call forth a lot about how our mind works.
PRH:What was Rorschach like as a person and a scientist?
DS: In these new archival sources I was able to find, he really comes through as this very solid, modern-feeling, modern-seeming good guy. He wasn’t some weird megalomaniac. Freud and Jung were geniuses but also seem like they were from this earlier era a lot of the time, and Rorschach really doesn’t come across that way. He was a visual artist whose dad was a drawing teacher. That’s why he was interested in the visual side of our lives. But once he invented the test, he was a very hard-nosed, sober, responsible scientist who didn’t want it to be used inappropriately, who was trying to get a large enough sample size to justify the claims. He was very resistant to making a bigger claim for anything than the data supported. He said that unfortunately the test — when you’re giving it to someone, you often have to decide between an arbitrary interpretation of the results or sort of crudely using the formulas, but he said when it comes down to that dilemma, you should always go with crude systematic formulas because that’s more objective.
PRH:The inkblots have taken on a life of their own in popular culture. What are some of your favorite examples of this?
DS: The Rorschach really hit its peak of popularity in the ’50s. There were perfume ads, there were parlor games, there were film noirs. There was one ad for an investment bank that had a reproduction of stock market results, so it had all these tiny little letters and numbers with this huge inkblot splashed on top of it. And it said, “Do you even know what your investment goals are? We at A.C. Becker know you even better than you know yourself.” So (it was as if) inkblots were this way that experts could uncover secrets about you that even you didn’t know. And comparing that to the perfume ads — in a bunch of these ads there would just be a perfume bottle and an inkblot and the words “psychologically speaking…” and that’s it. The inkblot said it all, that there’s this mysterious quality about you that maybe someone can penetrate to. By around the middle of the century, the inkblots meant that in such a way that advertisers could just use it.
I guess my favorite example is the video for Crazy from 2006, the Gnarls Barkley song, which is a great song, and it’s a great video and it has these inkblots morphing around. To me that’s also an example of how you can’t totally separate the pop culture Rorschach test from the real one. The agency that pitched the idea to Gnarls Barkley, the reason they got the job is because CeeLo Green, the singer, remembered having been actually given a Rorschach test when he was a troubled teenager. So it was because he knew it as a real thing that he thought it would be a good idea to express the vibe of the song about everyone being crazy.
PRH:The inkblots intersect with culture in another really fascinating way. In the book, you explain how we once defined people based on their character, but in the early 20th century that changed, and we began to define people based on personality. Explain that profound thought transition and how it relates to the Rorschach test.
DS: There was a historian named Warren Susman who laid that out, that there’s a culture of character, and that’s associated with words like citizenship, democracy, morals, integrity, reputation. You can sort of hear it — it’s this solid, objective way of describing the kind of person you are. And it shifted toward people caring more about personality, which was described with adjectives, not nouns. So your personality — it didn’t matter if it was good or bad. It mattered if it was fascinating, magnetic, charismatic, forceful, masterful, things like that. In advertisements, in the old days you’d say, “You should buy this kind of paper because it holds ink really well and it’s good for the price and it will last a long time,” and you’d get objective qualities about it. But by the early 20th century, the ads would say things like, “Everyone you send letters to is judging you. How do you want to be judged?” And as it moved past that, you get to, “You’ve come a long way, baby. Virginia Slim,” which doesn’t even say what it is. Or those iPod ads where it’s just a silhouette of people dancing around — they don’t say, “Holds more files and has a longer battery life.” It’s not telling you the character of the device, it’s telling you the personality of the device. American culture especially really is grounded on this idea that you have this mysterious, personal, inner unique style, and your goal is to express it. And then along came a test that let you actually purport to study it. Because the problem is, if you see everyone as unique and just sort of expressing their individual personality in everything they do, then how can you study it? You can’t compare anything; there are no controlled experiments. Everything in the world is just whatever each individual person wants it to be. So if everyone’s right, and nothing means anything, how can you study it?
In the ’30s and ’40s, the Rorschach test came to America as a way to, in a kind of quantifiable and concrete way, see how people expressed their personality by interpreting these images. That’s why the Rorschach test is a metaphor that’s in the newspapers all the time. You don’t say whether the new budget adds up or not; you just say, “The new budget is a Rorschach test.” And that is shorthand for saying, “I’m not going to tell you what it means. It’s all good, like it or unfriend it, whatever you want.” That’s the dark side of this understanding of the test as being all about subjective personality. In the end that’s not what I think the Rorschach test is. The last chapter of my book is called “The Rorschach Test Is Not a Rorschach Test” because it’s a real thing. The cards have actual visual qualities. The test either works or it doesn’t, it measures either this or that specific thing. It’s not just anything you want it to be, but that’s how it kind of entered American culture and that’s how we changed our understanding of what the test is.
PRH: It’s fascinating that both Obama and Hillary have described themselves as Rorschach tests. How do you interpret that statement from each of them?
DS: For me, Clinton was sort of using it in the classic way of saying, “I’m a Rorschach test, so if you think I’m great or if you think I’m Satan, that’s all about you. That’s not about me, it’s about you.” And I saw Obama’s use of it as kind of moving past that to some extent. He wasn’t saying, “Think whatever you want to think.” What he said when he called himself a Rorschach test was that everyone will see different things, but maybe we’ll learn something about ourselves. So for him it was this much more kind of coming together. The different reads didn’t polarize us and separate us; instead it gave us a little more insight into who we are. So that was this kind of classic early Obama, moving past differences — there’s no red America, there’s no blue America. So that was the sort of shift I was noticing as we came to the present, (but) the present isn’t exactly the present. The book was finished before the last election and now there’s sort of a different set of facts on the ground. Now “post-truth” was the (Oxford English Dictionary) word of the year last year, and there’s all this stuff about alternative facts. Is there some kind of common ground we can all agree on or force people to agree on? Or is everyone just going to have whatever alternative facts they feel like?
PRH:Speaking of alternative facts, in the book you wrote quite presciently that “people seem to feel that they have the right to their own facts, not just to their own opinions. But there are situations where the stakes are too high, or we are otherwise unwilling to throw up our hands at the existence of different worldviews and call it ‘a Rorschach test.’” Jung addressed what he felt was the origin of diverging worldviews with his theory of types. He wrote, “People are virtually incapable of understanding and accepting any point of view other than their own. Every man is so imprisoned in his type that he is simply incapable of fully understanding another standpoint.” If that’s true, where does it leave us?
DS: Jung came up with a kind of taxonomy of psychological types that, typically when it came to America, turned from psychological types to personality types. And when Hermann Rorschach was developing the Rorschach test, he was using Jungian ideas of introverted and extraverted. So one of the main personality results he thought he could get from the Rorschach test was introvert versus extravert. And the thing about Jung is that he realized that there’s no kind of God’s eye view that sees all the types equally, because every person is a type. So every person—himself included—is going to understand some kinds of people better than other kinds of people and not even realize that there are other kinds of people. There are just all these losers who do things wrong for no reason, we all think, whereas in fact that’s what they think of us, because (for example) they are extraverts and not introverts or they operate on feeling instead of on calculation.
Jung’s book Psychological Types actually came out the same year as Rorschach’s publication of the Rorschach test, in 1921, and Rorschach was asked to review it as a fellow Swiss psychiatrist. As he read it over and over again, it started to hit home to him that he’d skated over a little too quickly the relativism that was implied by his test. He was very insightful as well as being very scientific, and he had these brilliant interpretations of people’s Rorschach tests, so he just sort of got that there was a radical difference between how people saw the world. He was able to bridge that difference and understand how people’s minds work in the same way that Jung was better able than most of us to actually see things from these other points of view.
But if people really are different, then how can we claim to understand them at all? And the Rorschach test isn’t just these eight different types — it’s this infinity of different ways of seeing things, so Rorschach was really kind of taken aback. He had trouble writing his review. He kept putting it off, and then he died young right then. So we will never know how he would have tackled this problem of the relativism of different perspectives.
When it comes down to it, there’s no way around it. There’s no philosophy, there’s no test, there’s no trick that will magically make everyone in the world see things the same way, which puts scientists and everyone else in a tricky position.
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