I See A Much-Needed but Exhausting Biography: A Review of "The Inkblots"

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing

By Damion Searls

406 pp. Broadway Books. $17.00

There are very few books that we objectively need. An objective need doesn’t stem from a cliffhanger but rather a void or a gap in human knowledge. We don’t objectively need another James Patterson novel, but we did need a biography of Hermann Rorschach.

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing fills the gap in the road of human knowledge but then Damion Searls over-stuffs it. The second half of the book juts out of the road, causing us to have to take a detour that takes us through every ghost town and dirt road in between us and our destination. When we do get back on the road we are bored and tired; and wish the worker had just filled the gap, and saved the excess materials for a side street.

The Inkblots is not just a literal biography; it is also an exhaustive chronicle of the legacy of the Rorschach test. Unlike other life and legacy biographies such as Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine by Joe Hagan, it is not well-mixed. Instead it is split.

The first section of the book (Chapters 1-13) is the story of Hermann Rorschach’s life, education, and work. This section is composed primarily of Rorschach’s diary entries, letters, speeches, scientific papers; and the accounts of the people around him. We learn about his early intellectual upbringings which were full of art and literature. It’s not an extraordinary coming of age tale but it is very human story.

Rorschach was an incredibly clear and humane thinker and writer. He cared for his patients and was interested in helping them instead of treating them like plastic objects. But he was a pretty boring person. Which is perfectly fine, we are already over-saturated with biographies that idealize instead of explain (see David McCullough’s bibliography for a expansive selection of hero worship). These idealized biographies take out the bio (from the Greek bios meaning (course of) human life) and swap it for pretension and legend.

Damion Searls takes a back seat for most of the first half. He allows Rorschach to speak for himself for the first few chapters and is only noticeable when he finishes the chapters with cliched cliffhangers. There are times when Searls awkwardly name drops authors he has translated or edited before (Proust, Hesse, Thoreau, Rilke). The name drops, while contrived, do remind us that more than just psychologists have pondered the mysteries of the human mind. In sum, Searls’ little authorial input is perfectly fine and barely noticeable in the first few chapters.

But then you read on and you begin to get annoyed. First, Searls’ narrative openings end up not tying into what the chapter was about and come off as out of place flash-forwards. Instead of a literary strip tease, we are given spoilers. If Rorschach’s life was common knowledge, the flash-forwards would have been foreshadowing. But since the very existence of this book is due to the fact that we DON’T know his story, the flash-forwards interrupt the story.

Second, Searls’ understanding of the topics (the inkblots and history of psychology, psychiatry, psychoanalysis, etc.) is never truly confirmed. It appears at some times that he has no idea what he is talking about and relies heavily on light rephrasing of the academic texts (especially when explaining the initial scoring of the Rorschach test in Chapter 11) and at other times he appears to have grasped the idea so well that he feels that he doesn’t need to explain it (any time he mentions Freud or Jung). This book was marketed as book for the general reader. It comes off instead as an intellectual history carnival shock test: How long can you hold on?

Roscarch’s creation of the inkblots is never actually shown but is constantly alluded to. It feels like there is a chapter missing that explains when he made the inkblots. You wonder where this chapter is but continue to read on about the publishing squabbles and how other people’s ideas influenced the inkblots.

And then Rorschach dies halfway through his own biography. The chapter talking about his death is short and comes off as rushed. Chapter 13 ends with a portent: “The inkblots were now let loose on the world, without his guiding hand and eye”

The next ten chapters of the book (Chapter 14-24) cover the tumultuous intellectual legacy of the Rorschach test. Rorschach’s precious inkblots follow the same path as Christianity: first the creators die; then their thoughts are seen as heretical; next it is practiced in secret until enough followers are gathered to praise it; these followers split into factions over differences in interpretation and adoption in society; soon the thoughts become popularized and thus reproduced for profit and intellectual advancement to the point where the original idea is lost; and then the original idea is criticized because of these reproductions; and finally the original idea is lost until someone comes around and “rediscovers” the original idea and realizes how important it truly is but has to fight against the years of misinformation and bastardizations. The End.

In the second section of the book, there are very few interesting chapters. At times you placate yourself by thinking, “well of course the disciples are boring compared to Jesus.” And then when this placation loses its numbing power, you feel like someone has pushed a library shelf on top of you. You are stuck underneath piles of names and ideas that you can’t understand because you are confused. You keep trying to get out from underneath their weight by pushing on. But when you are finally free and walk away, you realize that all you took away from the experience was a headache.

Most of the second part is soaked in academia and the rest of it is recycled cliches. There are whole chapters where you forget you are reading a book about the Rorschach test and think you are reading a dissertation.

The discussions about how America appropriated the Rorschach test is framed as a story of misinterpretation but who can blame them for misinterpreting it? It’s almost too easy misinterpret something that even the experts can’t decide on in the first place. The holders of the knowledge (Klopfer, Beck, etc) couldn’t agree on a damn thing and spent more time fighting than acknowledging that people were bastardizing their ideas. Americans, Military, and artists took what they wanted from Rorschach (because…add something) and experts end up acting like ignorant kings by saying the academic version of “Those disgruntled peasants and their silly ideas. Ha ha. They’ll never…what do you mean they are outside the gates?”

Most people are probably thinking that I blame Searls for the faults of this book. Those thinking this will say, “Shouldn’t a biographer/chronicler be someone with expertise and not just someone who is interested and wants to fill a gap?” Normally I would agree with these people. But in the case of The Inkblots I think that Searls is the best we can get.

Searls doesn’t try to force us to agree with his arguments because there aren’t any! Searls is interested in contributing towards human knowledge not helping himself retain his department chair. And for this I applaud his effort.

At its best, The Inkblots is the story, told by someone who believes in its importance, of a man, not a hero, who wanted to help others understand themselves and receive the help they needed. At its worst it is an exhaustive but boring story about misinterpretation and the need to think more deeply about ourselves and our relations to each other.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.