Revisiting Damion Searls and "The Inkblots" on Access Utah

Feb 22, 2017

Our guest on Wednesday’s Access Utah is Damion Searls, author of "The Inkblots," a scientific and cultural history of the Rorschach test and the first biography of its creator, Hermann Rorschach.

In 1917, working alone in a remote Swiss asylum, psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach devised an experiment to probe the human mind: a set of ten carefully designed inkblots. For years he had grappled with the theories of Freud and Jung while also absorbing the aesthetic movements of the day, from Futurism to Dadaism. A visual artist himself, Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see.

After Rorschach’s early death, his test quickly made its way to America, where it took on a life of its own. Co-opted by the military after Pearl Harbor, it was a fixture at the Nuremberg trials and in the jungles of Vietnam. It became an advertising staple, a cliché in Hollywood and journalism, and an inspiration to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jay Z. The test was also given to millions of defendants, job applicants, parents in custody battles, and people suffering from mental illness or simply trying to understand themselves better. And it is still used today.

In this first-ever biography of Rorschach, Damion Searls draws on unpublished letters and diaries and a cache of previously unknown interviews with Rorschach’s family, friends, and colleagues to tell the story of the test’s creation, its reinvention, and its endurance—and what it reveals about the power of perception.

Damion Searls has written fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; translated thirty books from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch; and produced an abridged edition of Thoreau's "Journal" and an experimental edition of Melville's "Moby Dick."  Searls has written for Harper’s, n+1, and The Paris Review, and has translated the work of authors including Rainer Maria Rilke, Marcel Proust, and five Nobel Prize winners. He has been the recipient of Guggenheim, NEA, and Cullman Center fellowships.