The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, by Damion Searls (Crown, 416 pp., $28)

The Rorschach test, a series of inkblots shown to patients by psychiatrists to glean insight into their mental state, long ago became a metaphor for the open-ended nature of interpretation. “President Trump is our collective Rorschach test,” one recent article says. An art critic called the sculpture of a defiant girl standing athwart the bronze bull on Wall Street “a Rorschach test onto which people are projecting their own opinions and feelings.” Livia Gershon declares at a JSTORS blog, “Automation is a bit of a Rorschach test for anyone interested in workers’ rights.”

People know Rorschach as an analogy; they know Rorschach somewhat less as a tool for psychiatrists, and they know Rorschach as an actual person not at all. Damion Searls, in The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, examines the man behind the blots and discusses the creation and meaning of what he calls “probably the ten most interpreted paintings of the twentieth century.” This claim, at first blush outlandish, is probably true: millions of military recruits, job applicants, and psychiatric patients, after all, agreed to examine and interpret the peculiar images in order to allow a trained professional to examine and interpret them.

Born in Zurich in 1884, Hermann Rorschach lost his mother at 12. Six years later, his father, suffering from palsy and dizzy spells, also died. His father’s work as an art teacher and his neurological issues catalyzed the son’s interest in painting and the brain. Conflicted about whether to become an artist or a doctor, Rorschach chose both. His designs, which earned him the nickname “Klecks” (inkblot) from school chums, served as the convergence point for his seemingly disparate passions.

Rorschach’s test featured ten somewhat symmetrical inkblots which, as an assistant director of a psychiatric hospital at Herisau, Switzerland, he showed his patients in order to gauge a range of normative reactions. If a patient saw a bird, a rug, or two people shaking hands in the designs, that might reflect a healthy mental and emotional state; seeing in the same images a giant crushing someone or a fight to the death might register a more troubled condition. “Almost every response to an inkblot was based on Form, Color, and/or Movement,” Searls writes, “although Rorschach did occasionally encounter an abstract answer that was none of the above, such as ‘I see an evil force.’”

“People’s answers started to reveal more than Rorschach had thought possible: higher or lower intelligence, character and personality, thought disorders and other psychological problems,” Searls continues. “The inkblots let him distinguish between certain kinds of mental illness that were hard to differentiate in other ways. What had started as an experiment looked to be, in fact, a test.”

Rorschach, Searls explains, began to see a method to madness. “A manic-depressive in a depressive phase, he wrote, will give no Movement responses or Color responses, will see no Human figures, and will tend to start with Small Details before moving to the Whole (the reverse of the normal pattern), giving few Whole responses overall.” By contrast, those suffering from schizophrenic depression “will reject more cards, will occasionally give Color answers, will very often give Movement answers, will see a much smaller percentage of Animals and significantly more poor forms.”

People glimpsing the man holding the cards perhaps saw a model or an actor. They didn’t see a man of science. As recognized in several Internet-comparison photos, the Swiss doctor resembled a younger, more handsome Brad Pitt. Like his look, his behavior contrasted with the scientist stereotype: he loved music, took evenings off to spend time with his wife and two children, made his own furniture, and exuded a friendly disposition. The happy man married a difficult woman, though. Searls describes Olga Rorschach as “a tempestuous, impulsive, voluptuous, dominating woman” who would smash dishes in fits of rage. Despite the exalted station of his profession, Rorschach wanted for money, coal, and even books, which he borrowed rather than bought, during his short life. Cigarettes served as one of his few creature comforts. He died in 1922 at just 37, leaving his biographer with little in the way of a paper trail.

Lacking enough material to craft a proper biography, Searls writes half of one, filling the other half of The Inkblots with an account of the test’s long afterlife following its creator’s death. Rorschach lived on in his test the way Pop Warner became a football league and Les Paul a guitar brand. And then he lived on as a metaphor, after psychologists stopped using his creation as an effective window into the subconscious. The Rorschach test not only fails to captivate in the way that its creator does; it fails as a test. Indeed, Rorschach’s “test”—imprecise, airy, and undoubtedly corrupted by evaluator bias—was never considered by its creator in such terms. He imagined it more as a tool.

“A score on a test works if it gives valid and reliable information about a person,” Searls notes. “Results are true or false. But Hermann Rorschach had called his invention an inkblot experiment—an exploration, not a test.” What, then, is its value? Is it a parlor game? A diagnostic tool of science? An aesthetic/psychedelic inquiry to probe the depths of the subconscious? The answer remains as unclear as the blots themselves.

The postwar popularity of Freudian psychology boosted Rorschach’s test, but the conflicting postwar mania to quantify everything eventually undermined its popularity: assessment-obsessed scientists frowned on the subjectivity inherent in the evaluation. But the cult of quant had its own limitations for Rorschach’s proponents. Transforming an exercise in interpreting interpretations into a multiple-choice exam, and then feeding the answers into a scantron machine for a patient to receive Hal 9000’s imprimatur, missed something important, namely the human element, with all of its variations, in both doctor and patient.

To make an exact science out of something that isn’t an exact science means to do something other than science. Rorschach, at least, conceded that his test relied as much on art as science. Whether one sees in the blots abstract illustrations or a medical instrument reveals one’s regard for Rorschach’s profession. In this, but perhaps only this, the Rorschach test proves nearly 100 percent effective.

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of Blue Collar Intellectuals, A Conservative History of the American Left, and other books, serves as an editor for

Photo by Orlando/Getty Images


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