2022 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
first place, adult essay division
Title: Language, Memory, and Compassion in “Symbiosis Theory”
“Symbiosis Theory” features small aliens that reside in young humans and scientists who attempt to understand the aliens. It is a rich story not because of the things it tells us, but because of the questions it asks us. In fact, it even leaves open which questions are asked, inviting the reader to construct for herself the framing that, in retrospect, helps to put all the disparate pieces of the story together. In this essay, I’ll show how the story’s thematic questions generate insights about language, memory, and compassion.
Among the questions that are raised in the story, there are “surface” questions and “thematic” questions. Surface questions are posed to move the plot along. “Why does Ludmila have memories of a place she’d never been?”, a question invited by the opening of the story, is eventually answered by the alien’s continued presence in her mind. “Why do people react so emotionally to her paintings?” is also answered: though aliens coexist with humans only until they develop language proficiency, their memories leave a trace on the human mind. We also get a scientific answer to the question “why do babies think like older humans?” What the cry decoding algorithms uncover aren’t the babies’ thoughts, but the aliens’.
Beyond these plot-related, surface questions are the sophisticated thematic questions that hint at the story’s ability to tell us something enduringly true about people and the world we live in. An important cluster of questions concern language: why does Ludmila paint about the alien planet instead of writing about it? Why do the aliens leave once humans learn how to speak? Another significant cluster concerns memory: why do the aliens take children’s memory when they leave? And why do alien’s memories of their homeland leave a trace on the human mind? Lastly, we have questions surrounding its title: if the relationship between aliens and humans were symbiotic, who benefitted from whom, and in what way? The story is clear that a “symbiotic coexistence didn’t always involve a mutually benefit relationship”. Was it to human’s benefit or harm that aliens steered young humans towards altruism?
These questions are the driving force behind the story, and it is only when we answer the thematic questions that we arrive at the philosophical significance of the story. So, let’s turn to each cluster of questions.
It is telling that Ludmila paints; she doesn’t write about the alien planet. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but given that the aliens leave the human brain when language skills are acquired, I don’t think it’s mere efficiency that led Ludmila to choose a visual medium over a linguistic medium. My hunch is that the aliens leave humans once they learn how to speak, and were encouraging of Ludmila’s visual communication, because they believe their presence is made redundant with language. They think language can replace their presence because language is a social tool that connects one human to another. Ludmila, being an orphan, was especially prone to loneliness, and that’s why the aliens stayed with her even past her language acquisition. One of the aliens’ goal, then, might be a compassionate one of alleviating young humans’ loneliness until they acquire the linguistic skill to reach and connect with others.
This theme of loneliness also explains why the aliens take young humans’ memories with them when they leave. The aliens, being refugees of a destroyed planet, are no strangers to loneliness themselves. They seem like emotionally sensitive creatures, and leaving a host after so many years might be difficult for them. So, taking the host’s memory might be one way of taking a piece of the host with them so their connection isn’t completely severed. Philosophers such as David Hume and John Locke write that personal identity is intimately tied to the memories we have. If they’re right, then the alien’s taking of human memory, and their ancestral home memory lingering upon the human mind, might be the result of the aliens’ desire to forestall mutual loneliness by keeping their connection alive, no matter how faint.
This brings us to our last cluster of questions about aliens’ and humans’ symbiotic relationship. Do the aliens benefit from “inculcating ethics and altruism in humans”? I want to suggest that the aliens are ultimately a compassion species, wishing to minimize human suffering because they know what it’s like to suffer. If they’re an altruistic species, then leaving behind their moral framework—their culture—would be one way to keep their species alive in the universe.
Their goal of moralizing humans might also be related to why they take away children’s memories. Encouraging the illusion that morality is a uniquely human characteristic and that humans are naturally good is helpful for moral cultivation. The philosopher Mengzi argued that recognizing and celebrating the moral potential within our hearts is the most effective way to develop virtue. Though early childhood memory loss is a loss for humans, the aliens might have calculated that the resulting good, thanks to the illusion that morality didn’t involve an external contribution, outweighs the harm.
I don’t want to reduce the story to neat “messages” that it has for the reader as that would be to overlook the active participation the story asks of the reader. But from the questions I’ve identified, themes surrounding language, memory, and loneliness-induced compassion provide a number of insights: memory and identity are closely connected; language is a powerful tool to overcome the loneliness of being confined within our own minds; and sometimes, the most altruistic agents are ones who have suffered before and are willing to help in unseen ways.
Humans have long thought that language and morality set them apart from other animals. Whether this is true or not, it is richly thought-provoking to entertain the possibility of compassionate refugee aliens who are invested in the overall moral arc of the universe despite their own suffering— and there lies one virtue of “Symbiosis Theory.”