This excellent book begins as a biography and becomes, when the doctor suddenly dies of a ruptured appendix at the age of thirty-seven, a cultural history of his creation ... Why does something as abstract as a landscape have the power to make us feel so much? Because we have entered the world and allowed it to enter us. 'Our selves, refound in the world, are what we respond to,' Searls explains, 'feeling outward things as parts of us.' If that isn’t transhuman, I don’t know what is.
It is the fortunes of this humdrum test that Damion Searls charts in his impressively thorough, if somewhat dry book. The Inkblots is part biography of Hermann Rorschach, psychoanalytic supersleuth, and part chronicle of the test’s afterlife in clinical practice and the popular cultural imagination ... It is only toward the end of The Inkblots that Searls introduces research showing that when it comes to predicting human behavior, the Rorschach performs no better than chance. Up until this point, he treats the question of whether the test actually works or not as almost an incidental one, an abstract curiosity in his cultural history. But this is a mistake...the question of the Rorschach’s basic validity is not an interesting aside, but fundamental to the entire story ... Prioritizing the human beings impacted by this history would have made not only for a more readable book, but also a more responsible one.
...an exhaustively researched story of Rorschach’s brief life and an engaging consideration of his enduring test ... The Inkblots is tremendously rich. A Guggenheim and NEA fellow who specializes in translating Western European literature into English, the author probed unpublished letters, journals and other material to illuminate the way setting and circumstance influenced Rorschach’s life and work. Readers less enthusiastic about the clinical aspects of psychology and psychiatry may find themselves skimming certain sections, but such attention to detail also gives The Inkblots repeated moments of levity.
Searls places the Rorschach test and its creator in the crosshairs of art and science, impressionism and empiricism, objectivity and subjectivity ... In Searls’s preoccupation with the Rorschach’s aesthetic valences, a second-order truth emerges. Writing about the Rorschach test is itself a projective exercise; one that often reveals as much about the writer as it does about the test. Searls seems to have no interest in either confirming or disproving the test’s validity as a diagnostic tool. He is not a cynic; The Inkblots is not an exposé. He is an aesthete, and to him the greatest value of the blots is as art objects ... Intended or not, the history of the Rorschach test that emerges from Searls’s account is, ultimately, a Rorschach test.
As Searls admits, Rorschach never convincingly explained how and why the inkblots worked. Unfortunately, his system, and the permutations that followed as generations of psychologists attempted to standardize it, proves difficult to follow in the author’s otherwise engrossing narrative. Searls is stronger when characterizing the 'feuds and backbiting' that the test inspired among practitioners in America, where it 'was a lightning rod from the start,' and Europe, where, for example, it was applied to assess Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. Searls shows persuasively how the creation and reinvention of inkblots has reflected psychologists’ scientific and cultural perspectives.
...[a] clear and well-illustrated study ... Searls dutifully shows how the test added a whole new visual dimension to the emerging field of psychology in general, and the study and analysis of personality in particular.