For many years, the test was hyped as an X-ray of the soul. It’s not, and it wasn’t originally meant to be, but it is a uniquely revealing window on the ways we understand our world.
All of these strands—psychology, art, and cultural history—lead back to the creator of the inkblots. “The method and the personality of its creator are inextricably interwoven,” as the editor wrote in the preface to Psychodiagnostics, the 1921 book that introduced the inkblots to the world. It was a young Swiss psychiatrist and amateur artist, tinkering with a children’s game, working alone, who managed to create not only an enormously influential psychological test but a visual and cultural touchstone.
Hermann Rorschach, born in 1884, was “a tall, lean, blond man, swift of motion, gestures, and speech, with an expressive and vivid physiognomy.” If you think he looks like Brad Pitt, maybe with a little Robert Redford thrown in, you are not the first. His patients tended to fall for him too. He was openhearted and sympathetic, talented but modest, sturdy and handsome in his white doctor’s robe, his short life filled with tragedy, passion, and discovery.
Modernity was erupting around him, from the Europe of World War I and the Russian Revolution and from within the mind itself. In Switzerland alone, during Rorschach’s career there, Albert Einstein invented modern physics and Vladimir Lenin invented modern communism while working with the labor organizers in Swiss watch factories. Lenin’s next-door neighbors in Zurich, the Dadaists, invented modern art, Le Corbusier modern architecture, Rudolf von Laban modern dance. Rainer Maria Rilke finished his Duino Elegies, Rudolf Steiner created Waldorf schools, an artist named Johannes Itten invented seasonal colors (“Are you a spring or a winter?”). In psychiatry, Carl Jung and his colleagues created the modern psychological test. Jung’s and Sigmund Freud’s explorations of the unconscious mind were battling for dominance, both among a wealthy neurotic clientele and in the real world of Swiss hospitals filled far past capacity.
These revolutions crossed paths in Hermann Rorschach’s life and career, but despite tens of thousands of studies of the test, no full-length biography of Rorschach has ever been written. A historian of psychiatry named Henri Ellenberger published a sketchily sourced 40-page biographical article in 1954, and that has been the basis for nearly every account of Rorschach since: as pioneering genius, bumbling dilettante, megalomaniac visionary, responsible scientist, and just about everything in between. Speculation has swirled around Rorschach’s life for decades. People could see in it whatever they wanted to see.
The true story deserves to be told, not least because it helps to explain the test’s enduring relevance despite the controversies that have surrounded it. Rorschach predicted most of the controversies himself.
From The Inkblots, by Damion Searls, courtesy Crown. Copyright 2018 by Damion Searls.