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The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing Hardcover – February 21, 2017
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From the Publisher
Images from The Inkblots by Damion Searls
Wedding photo of Hermann and Olga Rorschach (May 1, 1910)
Rorschach Test, Draft Version Card III
Rorschach Test, Draft Version Card III
“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.”
—New York Times Book Review
"It seems incredible that no one before Damion Searls has ever written a biography of Rorschach… His early death may have deterred other would-be biographers, but Searls sails past it with style: the second half of his book traces the fortunes of Rorschach’s famous test, which became a household word in America after World War II, when the U.S. Army used it on draftees. Searls uses this unlikely-seeming artifact to illuminate two histories, one scientific, the other cultural, both full of surprises.
—Lorin Stein, The Paris 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
“Searls, a writer and translator, provides a rich cultural history of the Rorschach test, along with the first proper biography of Hermann Rorschach himself….With The Inkblots, the Rorschach, in all its ambiguity, finally has the richly complex life history it deserves.”
—New York Magazine
"Tremendously rich... [Searls] probed unpublished letters, journals and other material to illuminate the way setting and circumstance influenced Rorschach’s life and work.... [A]n exhaustively researched story of Rorschach’s brief life and an engaging consideration of his enduring test."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"This excellent book begins as a biography and becomes, when [Rorschach] suddenly dies of a ruptured appendix at the age of thirty-seven, a cultural history of his creation."
"Searls provides a detailed recounting of a man whose creativity and curiosity about the human mind drove him to create a new way of 'reading' people — an innovation that was quickly embraced, and misunderstood, by the masses."
“What an amazing book. The Rorschach inkblot is like the enigmatic corpse in a mystery novel, and Damion Searls is the passionate and encyclopedic detective who unpacks the intricate and twisted story of how it came to be. By the end, one feels that Rorschach and his test are the key to understanding the whole 20th century. Searls is a wonderful writer: funny, compassionate, and unfailingly attentive to all the magical coincidences (or are they?) and twists of human history.”
—Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed
"If the test’s subtlety has been hammered out by overfamiliarity, Searls restores much of its potency in this rich, resonant book. A dual biography, The Inkblots tells the story of the test’s inventor, Dr. Hermann Rorschach, while tracing the strange half-life of his cards as they appear, Zelig-like, at key 20th-century moments. Along the way, it almost inadventently uncovers a hidden history of social attitudes and cultural shifts over the past 100 years… Searls creates a warm-blooded portrait of a man who feels like a Hollywood biopic in waiting.”
—The Sunday Times
“In this broad yet richly nuanced book, literary translator Damion Searls gives to English readers for the first time the remarkable story of the Swiss psychiatrist whose iconic test provoked interest and head-shaking everywhere… [The Inkblots] is rich with entertaining and unexpected details.”
—New York Journal
“A richly detailed, sensitive biography of Rorschach’s short life and long afterlife.”
“Very little has previously been known about Rorschach’s private life; Searls now fills in many blanks, drawing a more rounded portrait of the Swiss psychiatrist… Rorschach’s genius is apparent, and his famous inkblots ever fascinating.”
"Searls has painstakingly woven together both the enduring strengths of Rorschach’s iconic test and the controversies and convolutions surrounding it, all while capturing Rorschach’s distinctive design, to which the inkblots owe their longevity. The book’s engaging narrative, born of both detailed research and artistic sentimentality, is a fitting tribute to its enigmatic subject."
“A fascinating account of the Swiss artist-scientist and the rise, fall, and perseverance of his test… [Searls] offers a compelling account of cultural, intellectual and social ferment.”
“A deft, surprising, and illuminating portrait of Hermann Rorschach, and a compelling case that his improbable inkblot experiment should earn him a place in the pantheon of psychology.”
—Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Lincoln’s Melancholy
“Who knew? Most of the founding lions of psychoanalysis often seem as petty and infantile as they were (at times) brilliant and inspired. But to hear Damion Searls tell it in this absorbing new biography, Hermann Rorschach was a different sort altogether: humane, empathic, loving, deeply sane, and possessed of a true artist’s soul. Searls’s account of Rorschach’s afterlife is no less fascinating, as every culture that encountered his test seemed to project its own values onto it. In the end, true to Rorschach, Searls locates the heart of being human at the endlessly unfurling intersection of vision and self-awareness.”
—Lawrence Weschler, author of Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder
“The life of this fascinating man is a much-needed contribution to the history of psychoanalysis. This is sure to become the standard reference for both Hermann Rorschach’s life and times and the history of the inkblot test from his time to ours.”
—Deirdre Bair, author of Jung: A Biography
“In this accessible biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls shows us the young psychologist, who died at a tragically early age, making his way among the feuding early 20th century thinkers in psychology, including Freud and Jung. Vividly sketched with many new sources, The Inkblots reveals Rorschach to be a fascinating character: part artist, part clinician. A marvelous portrait.”
—Peter Galison, Joseph Pellegrino University Professor, Harvard University
“The Inkblots is three books in one: an engaging biography of Hermann Rorschach; a vivid and meticulously researched history of his eponymous inkblots; and a fascinating exploration of the psychology of perception. This is a book that challenges us to consider the relationship between what we see and who we are.”
—Peter Mendelsund, author of What We See When We Read
“Damion Searls’s book is a refreshing biography of Hermann Rorschach and a cultural history of his famous inkblot test. Rorschach died almost a century ago and this book reveals fascinating details about his life and the enduring controversies regarding the meaning of his inkblot test.”
—Joel E. Dimsdale, author of Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals
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.
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Different people see things differently. The various avenues of inquiry with regard to these differences requires an examination of the subject’s unconscious. An unstructured and non-objective test can reveal a subjects unconscious needs and motivations which contribute to the manner in which he responds to the question, “Tell me what you see”. The subject’s responses are evaluated according to the quality and coherence of his thought processes.
The assumption of the test is that we are not passive recipients of stimuli; nor are we passive with regard to the way we interpret facts. The manner and logic of responses constitute the overall strength or weakness of a subject’s organizing ability. According to the projective hypothesis there is a back and forth process whereby one projects himself while concurrently internalizing his world. In other words, our reactions rest on the manner in which we associate our ideas.
Most insightful, I believe, is Rorschach’s emphasis on the process of empathy. We gain the ability to connect with the world by exercising our capacity for empathy. The counter pole to empathy is defined as “abstraction”. “Abstraction”, is described as “an urge to turn one’s back or pull away from a connection with the world.”
Searls goes on to explain the two poles of logical synthesis, deduction and induction. Details of the blot once identified can be further integrated in accordance with the reality of the blot. Cognitive coherence and cognitive complexity go hand in hand with our ability to remain reality oriented.
This is a fascinating book, both for its range of information and its focus on detail. I thoroughly enjoyed Searls’ emphasis on the human dimension of personality. After all, the personality is a fascinating topic for not just psychologists and an effort to understand ourselves is always an endeavor worth pursuing.
Author Damion Searls plumbs the backstory of Rorschach’s life - his humble and tragic early child and young adulthood, to his productive but hardly high-profile life as a psychiatrist in a Swiss asylum. Though not as well-placed, famous, published or prolific as Freud or Jung, Rorschach’s inkblots have survived the most important test of all – that of time. The inkblots aren’t introduced until Chapter 10, but their gestation is amply documented by Searls through Rorschach’s letters, notes from his wide travels – as far as Russia - and his work on sects and the thoughts of the mentally ill. His spectacular drawing talent, combined with his curiosity and playful personality, perfectly positioned him to capture the unconscious mind in a visual way.
"Psychodiagnostics," his landmark psychological study with the 10 disarming and indistinct inkblots (five color; five black and white), was published in 1921. Sadly, less than one year after publication, Rorschach dies of a burst appendix at age 37.
Searls writes a fascinating and thoroughly researched story. The first half of the book explores the influences and timing that led to the inkblots, while the second half covers worldwide use of this startlingly original and fantastical concept from the Nuremberg Trials to basic screening of US Army recruits. Rorschach believed, writes Searls, that his visual images produced mental states that “awaken an idea.” That idea – all 10 of them - continues to capture the public’s imagination.
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In part, that's due to Rorschach dying young, his book with inkblots and explanation just having been published...Read more