Staff Picks: Tests, Tongues, Tinfoil Orbs


This Week’s Reading

Rorschach psychodiagnostics.


From the first chapter of The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, out in February, it seems incredible that no one before Damion Searls has ever written a biography of Rorschach. Born in extreme poverty in the Swiss countryside, in 1884, Rorschach spent most of his professional life in obscurity, working as a psychiatrist in a remote, understaffed insane asylum. It was there that he invented his “psychodiagnostics,” a series of symmetrical multicolored forms (they weren’t really inkblots) that could reveal hidden aspects of the mind. One year later, Rorschach was dead, at thirty-seven, of a ruptured appendix. His early death may have deterred other would-be biographers, but Searls sails past it with style: the second half of his book traces the fortunes of Rorschach’s famous test, which became a household word in America after World War II, when the U.S. Army used it on draftees. Searls uses this unlikely-seeming artifact to illuminate two histories, one scientific, the other cultural, both full of surprises. —Lorin Stein

I have a galley of Layli Long Soldier’s debut collection but have put off digging into it partly because it doesn’t come out until March. Given the events at Standing Rock earlier this week, it seemed the ideal moment to read the long, multipart poem Whereas, Long Soldier’s response to President Obama’s signing and delivery, in 2009, of the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. Or rather, his lack of delivery: he never read it aloud publicly. Is an apology really an apology if you only write it down and file it away? Long Solider begins sentences, paragraphs, and sections with whereas, the hedging of government-speak that she counters with lines about her childhood, her parents, her tribe, and her daughter. She interweaves these with thoughts of language’s limitations, which she faces again and again, and her weariness—bodily, psychically, culturally—infects the poem: “How much must I labor // to signify what’s real … Really, I climb the back of languages, ride them into exhaustion—maybe pull the reins when I mean go … Stuck, I want off. Let loose from the impulse to note: Beware, a horse isn’t a reference to my heritage.” The personal is political here, and vice versa, and Long Soldier isn’t giving up. “The root of reparation,” she writes, “is repair.” —Nicole Rudick 

From Lost Coast.

The center of the photographer Curran Hatleberg’s new book, Lost Coast, is an image of a man seated in a ramshackle garage levitating a tinfoil orb. The garage is cold, with grimy windows, cans, and threadbare blankets, and the man’s splayed thumbs barely graze the sides of the orb. It’s equally possible that this is a decontextualized practical act or that it’s literal magic: such is the bewitching alchemy of Lost Coast. The images are all made in Eureka, California, but Hatleberg’s tour of modulating lights and landscapes suggests a place much less specific, a sort of general American back-alley. The effect is a world that is recognizable but insistently aslant—and one that is distinctly photographic. It’s the presence of Hatleberg’s camera, in the end, that transforms the detritus of the everyday (rain barrels, dogs, shopping carts, gas cans, flowers) into something rapturous. An aggressive frame disembodies a hand. A lens evokes a light so tactile that it seems to have been sprayed through the air. And the orb picture—it’s the flash slipping across the mottled surface of the foil that makes the orb otherworldly, the dull and unnatural glow evoking a magic that seems native to the garage. Lost Coast is a reminder that the camera’s Midas touch can be subtle: it can take the nuts and bolts of postindustrial rural America and transform them into a myth barely distinct from the real. —Sylvie McNamara

What language did Adam speak? The question may sound naive, but it was a source of long debates among medieval Muslim philosophers. In The Tongue of Adam, the Moroccan scholar Abdelfattah Kilito revisits these arguments—and related questions about the evolution of speech, the relation of humans to God, the reliability of history, and the difference between poetry and prophecy—with a playfulness and wit that remind me of Lewis Hyde. —L.S.

Still from Artists and Models.

I’ve hardly ever laughed so hard as I did watching Frank Tashlin’s 1955 Artists and Models, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. It’s a classic story—two fellas, a writer and an artist, trying to hack it in New York. They fall in love with two women in their building—a successful comic-book artist (Dorothy Malone) and her roommate (Shirley MacLaine). The story itself takes some weird, cartoonish turns involving the CIA and Soviet spies, but it’s full of the gags on gags on gags that Tashlin’s films are famous for. This is a man who loves to slip as many jokes as he can into a single frame. My favorite scene, in which the darling MacLaine serenades Lewis with an Italian love song, makes essentially the same joke half a dozen times. He’s coming back to the apartment with an armful of beach gear, including a foldout lawn chair; she’s singing on the stairway landing and bursts into the chorus right as he rounds the top of the stairs, startling him into flinging his gear through the air. As soon as he’s finished gathering it all up again, she hits another high note and he’s startled anew. I’m no good at retelling jokes, though—watch the clip here. —Caitlin Love

GQ’s new oral history of Prince is among the most generous, vibrant portraits to emerge since his death. Of course it’s built on surreal stories—omelets are cooked, hardware stores visited, lace panties deployed as pocket squares—but these are girded by a sense of his intellect, humor, and solicitude that was often missing in the obituaries this April. Chaka Khan’s was one of many remembrances that made me well up: “I just wish people to know that he was a really sweet, loving person. But he denied himself a lot of what people had to offer. I don’t know why. Who knows?” And Van Jones lands on the best metaphors I’ve heard for Prince’s vigilant mind, his unobstructed, almost logorrheic creativity: “Prince wrote music the way you write e-mails, okay? If you were transported to some world where the ability to write e-mails was some rare thing, you would be Prince … But he had no expectation, he was just being himself. It’s like you cut the water faucet on—I don’t think the faucet is sitting there thinking, ‘This is the best water ever!’ The faucet is just doing what the faucet does. That’s kind of how he was.” —Dan Piepenbring