For me, the most sympathetic character in Alan Moore’s graphic-novel masterpiece, Watchmen, is Rorschach: a gritty, psychologically conflicted, fedora- and trench coat-clad vigilante who hides his face with an inkblot-printed mask (hence his alias). Modelled after Steve Ditko’s Ayn Rand-inspired Mr. A and The Question, personifications of a Manichaean version of Objectivism, Rorschach tends to punish criminals without mercy, driven farther into despair by the rape and slaughter of a little girl. Like Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s and Paul Schrader’s Taxi Driver, Rorschach admires the good so much, loves love so much, he has died to the good and love; he is drowning in the same sewer he wishes to cleanse and hates hate instead of feeling love at all. His futile attempts to fight sin in clear-cut blacks and whites have confused his very identity, and the inexplicably morphing blacks and whites seem to fight to become gray on his mask (his “face”).
This comic-book character is only a drop of proof of how familiar the mysterious images of the Rorschach test are in modern society. Its now-iconic inkblots have become ingrained in pop culture, far beyond their scientific origins, Andy Warhol’s Rorschach series in the 1980s and a design for Dr. Martens boots, to name two examples. (I’m quite surprised at the lack of writing about the inkblot-like vibe in much of M.C. Escher’s patterned graphic work.) 24 years after the death of Hermann Rorschach, the psychiatrist who is forever associated with the weird blots due to his breakthrough research and methodology, a movie called The Dark Mirror, starring Olivia de Havilland, presented a mentally disturbed woman taking an inkblot test. And, perhaps ironically to a fault, Watchmen’s Rorschach is required to take the test while in prison. Both instances show the test boiled down for popular consumption, nevertheless stressing a fundamental truth: the test was designed by its originator to “follow the conflict between repressing conscious and repressed unconscious.” The comic-book Rorschach believes that “existence is random, has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.” But Hermann Rorschach, the great psychiatrist – and man who could dilate and contract his pupils at will, believed that there were patterns, so to speak, and that they could be deciphered and comprehended.
When I first picked up The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls, I thought that I’d be reading a biography of a man whose name was more familiar to me than his actual work, until his death at age 37 in 1922 surprised me hardly a third of the way through the book. (It blindsided me as much as the sudden murder of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Departed did!) From then on The Inkblots is mainly about the inkblots themselves and the evolution, innovation, reiteration and even rejection of Rorschach’s original idea, an idea largely unknown to me, and, I dare say, to most readers out there. Searls writes:
[Rorschach] created a window into the soul that we have been peering through for a century, then died before he could respond to the biggest challenge to his legacy…[T]he inkblots were now let loose on the world, without his guiding hand and eye.
Right at the beginning of the book I learned that the Rorschach test involves only ten different inkblot cards, and though it has no active copyright and can be viewed on the Internet and in books, the actual blots are secured by The Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association. As Searls puts it, “most of the Rorschach blots we see in everyday life are imitations or remakes, in deference to the psychology community.” I also learned that holding and viewing the actual cards makes a big difference because size, tangibility and the ability to reposition the cards matter. Also, I’d never seen a photograph of Rorschach until browsing through the book’s image collection. The most striking one is of him and his gorgeous wife, Olga, in 1910. The couple looks so lovely and contemporary, and to call Hermann handsome is an understatement. (I think he’s a ringer for Brad Pitt, but I don’t see a young Robert Redford as the author does.)
Rorschach was probably partly inspired by poet/doctor Justinus Kerner’s klecksography in the form of “blotograms,” which Kerner called “daguerrotypes of the invisible world,” and there’s much in his approach that jibes with the insights of philosopher Robert Vischer, who thought that “we involuntarily read our emotions into” inanimate objects via empathy: “creative seeing, reshaping the world so as to find ourselves reflected in it.” Perhaps most important, there was Haeckel and his remarkable illustrations in Art Forms in Nature, which celebrated the “structure and symmetry throughout the natural world.” Eventually, Rorschach developed his own inkblot system based on the power of “a picture – the rails on which the viewer’s imagination must roll, according to the artist’s representation.”
While he attended the University of Zurich, a city of psychopathological pioneers who made great strides in the study of mental illness and where he met the woman who would become his wife, Olga Shtempelin, Rorschach came to know Eugen Bleuler, director of psychiatry clinic and coiner of the terms “schizophrenia,” “autism” and “ambivalence.” Young Carl Jung assisted Bleuler in 1900, and the two developed a word-association test together, as well as developed the concept of complexes: aberrations in timed responses to prompt-words. Their exploration of the unconscious, later enriched by psychoanalysis, independently confirmed Freud’s studies in Vienna. To make a long story short, Jung crashed in on Bleuler’s relationship with Freud via damning, disrespectful letters and, as Searls puts it, “if Bleuler is unjustly forgotten today, it is largely because Jung wrote him out of history – never once mentioning him by name in his memoirs.”
As for Rorschach, he “both respected Freud’s ideas and preserved a certain skepticism toward them,” applying psychoanalysis when it seemed worthy, but preferring Bleuler’s physiological approach to mental disease. Searls explains the fundamental divergence between Freud and Rorschach:
…Rorschach was a visual person and created visual psychology…Freud, though, was a word person. The whole tradition he founded…was designed to reveal the unconscious in what we say or don’t say. It is psychology by the word people, for the word people. Modern psychology, meanwhile, worships at the altar of statistics – the revenge of the math people.
Later, Jung’s Psychological Types impressed Rorschach deeply, but Rorschach still maintained his own way: “Jung had divided the world into eight distinct worldviews, but Rorschach’s framework risked an even more thoroughgoing relativism, shattering a unitary truth into a nearly endless variety of perceptual styles.”
Around the time when Rorschach participated in the founding of the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society and served as its vice-president, he started to create his own inkblots, making sure “to eliminate any sign of craftsmanship and artistry.” He was adamant that the blots had to appear impersonal for effectiveness. Also, bilateral symmetry, not vertical orientation, was crucial because it “makes the form more pleasing to the eye and thus makes the subject more willing to perform the task.” He chose red as the third color for the blots because red is aggressive and stimulating.
He began experimenting with his inkblots and how subjects responded to them, and he found that “people’s answers started to reveal more than [he] had thought possible: higher and lower intelligence, character and personality, thought disorders and other psychological problems.” From then on Rorschach used the blots as a test rather than a mere experiment, paying close attention to three main response types: Form, Color and Movement. Eventually, “typical profiles” developed. For example:
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. People with schizophrenic depression, on the other hand, will reject more cards, will occasionally give Color answers, will very often give Movement answers, and will see a much smaller percentage of Animals and significantly more poor forms…
As profile patterns became more evident, Rorschach saw more importance in objective, unemotional evaluation of “common or uncommon” answers, and he even moved into doing blind diagnoses, rating the data collected by delegates. He published his seminal Psychodiagnostics in 1921, and it was rejected by prominent psychologist William Stern, who had also panned Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, which was so lauded by Eugen Bleuler, when it came out. The book endures in academia to this day, but since its publication Rorschach’s vision has gone through many changes.
Over a decade after his untimely death, personality became the in-vogue focus for mental studies. Marguerite Hertz published “The Reliability of the Rorschach Ink-Blot Test” in 1934, and Lawrence Frank’s “Projective Methods for the Study of Personality” appeared five years later. The latter especially favored personality and subjectivity. “Everything a person did was significant, but it needed to be interpreted, not simply tabulated,” explains Searls. “Standardized test wouldn’t work. The scientist needed a way to measure how a subject’s personality organized his or her experience.” The primary goal became the revelation and measurement of each individual self, and studying a person’s unique projection, which affected how she/he perceived the world beyond.
By World War II mental-health studies burgeoned, and “every able-bodied man in the country was given a psychological screening along with intelligence tests and medical exams.” Bruno Klopfer (author of The Rorschach Technique: A Manual for a Projective Method of Personality Diagnosis) and Molly Harrower came up with the Group Rorschach Technique by which 200 participants were processed per 20 minutes at a time. Harrower deviated greatly from Rorschach’s original intention for the test in her “A Multiple-Choice Test (For Use with Rorschach Cards or Slides).” Testees had to only check boxes next to what they thought the blots looked like, and a key rated good and bad answers. As a result, many psychiatric/personality disorders were discovered and many discharges were given (with a relatively low percentage of fakery). This raised concern over the high number of mentally disturbed people in the U.S., leading to the 1046 National Mental Health Act and the establishment of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Whatever Rorschach’s intent, the content-based approach – the most seductive and Freudian but also the most controversial, prone to subjectivity and misuse – was now a viable alternative to the other, more sober Rorschach methodologies. It was also increasingly widespread in the popular imagination. Seeing a happy butterfly in a meadow is good, an ax murderer is bad. It was an easy idea to popularize.
With this shift, the road was paved for one of the most famous applications of the Rorschach test in history. Douglas Kelley, co-author of The Rorschach Technique with Bruno Klopfer in 1942, was the prison psychiatrist during the Nuremberg Trials, and he administered I.Q. tests to Nazi defendants (Schacht, Keitel, Franz von Papen, Goring, Streicher, etc.), finding many high scorers. Also, 24 prisoners in all took Rorschach tests. These prisoners included Albert Speer, Rudolph Hess, Arthur Rosenberg, Von Ribbentrop and Hans Frank. All of them exhibited “a certain lack of introspection, a propensity for chameleon-like flexibility in adapting to orders,” but there were more differences than similarities. For the most part, the defendants were declared sane and “they could be duplicated in any country of the world today.” In his 22 Cells in Nuremberg, published in 1947, Kelley claimed that “insanity is no explanation for the Nazis.” Searls observes that Kelley’s honest assessment went “against what the postwar public strongly believed, and even more strongly wanted to believe.” As Molly Harrower put it:
We operated on the assumption that a sensitive clinical tool, which the Rorschach unquestionably is, must also be able to demonstrate moral purpose, or lack of it. Implicit also at that time was the belief that this test would reveal a uniform personality structure of a particularly repellent kind.
However, there was a sense of failure to nail down the Nazi type, to set them far apart from the rest of society. The Nuremberg Mind: The Psychology of Nazi Leaders by Florence Miale and Michael Selzer was published in 1975, revealing the Nazi Rorschach data to the public for the first time.
Incidentally, Douglas Kelley killed himself with a cyanide pill in 1950, in the same way that Goring, with whom Kelley had become somewhat infatuated, had.
In the 1960s a Dr. John Exner, Jr. realized that there was no uniform Rorschach method, so he synthesized the overlapping systems in The Rorschach Systems by 1969 and in The Rorschach: A Comprehensive System in 1974. “The Rorschach had to be standardized, stripped of its intuitive, emotionally powerful, and arguably beautiful qualities, to fit into the data-driven new era of American medicine,” writes Searls.
The Inkblots includes much more about the ebb and flow of the Rorschach test’s popularity and scientific clout over several decades, and its copious anecdotes are enlightening and engrossing. Though it goes far beyond the namesake of its subtitle, the information about the man Hermann Rorschach was is the most edifying of the book’s aspects. Despite the cliché, passionate about life in general is an apt way to describe him. His strong emotions about both professional and personal matters predisposed him to become a Russophile, because “Russians, for Rorschach, meant feeling: being in touch with strong, genuine emotions, and being able to share them.” Fascinated by Russian thought, pen pals with Leo Tolstoy, even a later admirer in Russian Futurism, Rorschach had an intellectual love affair with the country and its culture, as sure as he fell in love with one of its daughters, his adored Olga (“Lola”).
Early on, his Russophilism led him to make a colossal (and rather foolish) prediction: “I think we will see it turn out that Russia will be the freest country in the world, freer than our Switzerland.” Then the Bolshevik Revolution came. After news of clampdown and atrocities reached Switzerland, Rorschach wrote bitterly in a letter:
Have you heard about the pamphlet by [Maxim] Gorky where he condemns both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky for their petit-bourgeois message that the people should ‘merely suffer?’ Have you ever seen such a fetid swamp! At least Judas Iscariot went off and hanged himself. I wonder what dreams Gorky has at night!
I just love such crystal-clear awakenings. And, speaking of awakenings, another endearing anecdote about Rorschach involves a letter he wrote to his beloved and close sister Ana, inspired by his realization that she had entered the age and world of sexual activity. Note the noble, respectful spirit of gender equality in the following passage:
Shockingly many men see women as sex objects. I don’t know how much you’ve thought about this last issue, but I hope you have thought about it on your own. Hold tight to the conviction that a woman is a human being too, who can be independent, and who can and must improve herself and complete herself on her own. Also realize that equality must exist between men and women. Not in political tussles but in the domestic sphere, and above all in sex life.
My favorite revelation in the book will surely be yours: “In a twist of fate that seems too good to be true, Rorschach’s nickname in school was ‘Klex,’ the German word for ‘inkblot.’”
– David Herrle