A review By RUTH WHIPPMAN
MARCH 14, 2017
Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing
By Damion Searls
Illustrated. 405 pp. Crown. $28.
“Type the phrase “like a Rorschach test” into Google and what pops up is everything from Hillary Clinton to Cheetos. In popular myth, the famous inkblots, part gothic horror, part toddler splat painting, are a shortcut to our subconscious, plunging through the artifice of our self-presentation and into our darkest mental recesses. In this cartoonish version of the Rorschach, what we see in the blots — whether a butterfly, or the bloodied stumps of our last victim’s limbs after we hacked them off with a salad fork — is who we really are.
It is perhaps no surprise that the Rorschach metaphor has become a cliché of modern journalism. It’s a fascinating idea that what we see in a given situation often reveals as much about our own selves — our quirks and prejudices and vanities — as it does about the thing we are looking at. This back and forth between self and world is at the heart of art and literature and criticism. Within this metaphorical universe, writing a book review is a perfect Rorschach test.
Sadly, as it turns out, Rorschach the metaphor is a lot more compelling than Rorschach the reality. The actual test, still in sporadic use, takes a more persnickety, box-ticking approach to the human personality, less magical psychoanalytic Tarot cards and more Myers Briggs tests with splats. The scoring system is tediously technical, and surprisingly what you see in the blots counts less toward your result than the technicalities of how you perceive form and movement.
Rorschach, a young psychiatrist with the tousled rom-com looks of Brad Pitt, was working with deeply disturbed patients in a remote Swiss asylum during the golden years of psychoanalysis. Across the Alps, Freud was busy delving into the ids of rich Viennese housewives using an early version of talk therapy. But Rorschach speculated that in understanding the human psyche, what we see might be as important as what we say. A gifted amateur artist, he created the inkblots to see if his patients’ differing styles of perception could help parse out the differences between various pathologies.”
Ruth Whippman is the author of “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.”
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