Article published in Houston Chronicle on February 19, 2017.
Almost 100 years after its creation, the Rorschach test remains a widely-used scientific tool in psychology and serves as a cultural catchall in the popular imagination. Author and translator Damion Searls explores this legacy—and the life of its creator—in his latest book: “The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing,” which goes on sale February 21, 2017.
DS: Rorschach’s father was a drawing teacher, and he himself was an amateur artist, making drawings in his diaries, building and painting toys for his children, and an avid photographer. He was a visual person. Freud was a word person: the talking cure, “Freudian slips” of the tongue, and so on. But we’re not all word people. Freud thought the most revealing thing was what we say or don’t say; Rorschach thought that seeing goes deeper than talking.
MY: Rorschach began his career at about the same time abstract art emerged. Was there a connection between abstract art and Rorschach and his inkblots?
DS: Rorschach wasn’t an artist in that sense, but he was aware of modern trends and mentioned them in his work. The main link is the new idea that art expresses something inside the artist (this is why Jackson Pollock, for example, is called an “Abstract Expressionist”). Modern abstract art tried to give visual form to something ineffable inside, and the Rorschach test used visual images to gain access to that ineffable inner self.
DS: Most people think that each psychologist uses their own blots. In fact, Hermann made ten unique images, and he put them in a specific order to choreograph the test-taking experience. Those ten are still used today. The blots are visually interesting, and that’s a big part of what inspired me. Most smears look like nothing, but Rorschach’s blots really could be two waiters holding pots and bowing to each other or what have you. They can be perceived differently, but there is a structure to them. I could go on for hours about what makes them so rich. Psychology aside, they’re probably the ten most analyzed paintings of the 20th century.
MY: In terms of usage, the high point of the tests was in the 1940s and 1950s. What factors prompted this degree of ubiquity?
DS: The test became popular in the U.S., starting in the late 30s—after Rorschach died—when American culture was very interested in personality. How could personality be measured in an objective way? Here was a test that claimed to give access to that. When WWII erupted, the field of clinical psychology took off and the Rorschach test was the center of the field. It remained central through the 1960s, when reactions against expertise authority of all kinds brought down both Freud and the Rorschach test… but the test was reinvented in the 1970s as a numerical, objective test, and survives to this day.
MY: Professionals disagree over the validity of the test, and some researchers suggest that the Rorschach test has become a Rorschach test of its own.
DS: Professionals disagree, but much of the criticisms are out of date. There has been a lot of research on it, and science has validated the current Rorschach test. What people are rightly skeptical about is the pop-culture version, where the test is a magic mind reader. The real Rorschach test doesn’t do that. The Rorschach test is not a Rorschach test. The cliché is that there are no wrong answers, anything means what you want it to mean. But the real Rorschach test isn’t like that. The blots have objective visual qualities; the test has a specific history and use. The facts matter, not just our opinions about them.
MY: Rorschach died at an early age, and not much is known about him. For people who haven’t read the book, what would you like them to know?
DS: The people who have read the book so far are struck by the same thing I am: that Hermann Rorschach was a really solid, good person. You like spending time reading about him. He was modest, kind, hard-working (and incredibly handsome); a responsible scientist, truly anti-sexist and supportive of women; and a good and sympathetic doctor, loved by his patients and colleagues. He overcame a humble background and the early death of both his parents to create a lasting psychological test, cultural touchstone, and visionary synthesis of art and science. It’s a good story.
Mike Yawn is the Director of the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics at Sam Houston State University.