Ichor: A Physical and Figurative Marker of Infection in the Human Body and in the Literature

In the novel Zulus, we read from chapter A-Z instead of the customary 1-26; this is one of many conventions Percival Everett breaks in his writing. He uses this technique as an opportunity to provide various allusions that coincide with each chapter’s assigned letter. Take chapter I, for example: “I is for ichor. ‘… there is no soundness in it; but wounds, and bruises, and putrefying sores; they have not been closed …’” (Zulus, 111). I is for infection as well, and as I will explain, Ichor is the discharge that oozes from infected wounds. In Zulus, this infection is the rot and decay left behind by chemical and nuclear warfare. Two of the book’s protagonists try to eradicate this infection in very different ways: one by means of growth, and one by means of erasure. In our own medical system, we also have old wounds that need healing, and the choice is ours in terms of how to approach this challenge.   

In a medical sense, ichor is formally defined as: “Thin watery discharge from an ulcer or unhealthy wound.” In the world inhabited by the two protagonists of Zulus, Alice Achitophel and Kevin Peters, the planet is literally and figuratively covered in wounds. In a physical sense, the divot in the earth with “blood-red channel walls” (Zulus, 57), that is referred to as “the scar” (Zulus, 56) is alluded to many times throughout the book. It serves as a physical manifestation of all that humanity has damaged on earth and leaves no question about both the physical damage left behind from warfare and “what invisible horrors lay hidden” (Zulus, 56) beneath the surface. Alice sees the planet as a tainted, but also as a place with the potential to heal and change. In a more abstract sense, Kevin views humans as the contaminants of the planet, he alludes to this many times, and notes that: “we are a great wound” (Zulus, 129). He sees the earth as having the potential to heal too, but only when the infectious agent, humans, are removed. In the field of medicine, there are also many scars left behind from past practices. There are physical ones, such as those on the backs of prison inmates resulting from the numerous clinical trials mentioned in chapter 10 of Medical Apartheid. However, there are also many other old wounds that are not so easily seen, ones hidden in our past that still haunt us to this day. An example mentioned in chapter 5 of Medical Apartheid is the practice of grave robbing that occurred in order to obtain bodies for medical dissection and experimentation.

In the human body, wounds can often be treated with relative ease in order to prevent infection or treat a preexisting one. In the case of most wounds, cleaning with soap and water, removing debris, and applying antiseptic is adequate. For infections that have already progressed, antibiotics may be prescribed, and if this fails, debridement, or the removal of dead tissue, can be performed so that the remaining tissue can heal. If infections remain untreated, they can spread to the blood stream. This process is known as sepsis and can cause organ systems to fail and ultimately lead to death. The world Alice and Kevin live in has been tainted, if it were a wound infection would surely be rampant. Both characters attempt to combat this rot and to protect the planet from complete demise, or a figurative sepsis, with very different approaches: Alice takes an approach of cleansing and regrowth, and Kevin chooses a path of drastic destruction.

In the novel Alice becomes pregnant, once by rape and once by consent. In her first pregnancy we read about, Alice was literally and figuratively reborn from her old body; she emerges from her own womb as a thinner, bolder, and more confident version of herself. In the novel Alice begins to assist her coworker, Sue Kabnis, with stealing medications, and eventually comes to witness and respect the “rebellious” practice of providing dead bodies with proper burials. Alice comes to love her work and what she stands for, and truly wants to make the world a better place.  Along with her hope for a better future of the planet we learn that Alice also anticipates the future for her child she conceived with Kevin Peters, even after it is stolen from her. Though both her world and past are tainted by violence, Alice takes the time and energy to heal and help to restore herself and her society: much like one would clean out an infected wound. This growth mindset Alice demonstrates, along with the convention of improper burials, is demonstrated in chapter 5 of Medical Apartheid. In this chapter we read about what occurred in 1989 after construction workers found ten thousand human bones and skulls in a structure that once belonged to the Medical College of Georgia. As noted in the text, these bodies were here because they were stolen for medical personnel to dissect and practice on. In a situation where to college could have easily turned a blind eye or claim it was a common practice of the past, they instead cooperated in a quest with a team of anthropologists, doctors, historians, and other professionals in order to find out information about these unidentified bones(Medical Apartheid, 120). In a figurative sense, the Medical College of Georgia took the time to clean up their past reputation to help both themselves and their many victims to heal from past violence, similarly to Alice.

Kevin has a very different approach to dealing with his tainted planet: he wants to eradicate and forget the ones who ruined it. Throughout the novel he makes it obvious that he sees humans as the problem, and Kevin proceeds to release a gas called “the Agent” (Zulus, 243) that kills all humans on the planet. Kevin’s desire to end human life is like that of the process of debridement. As one would remove all the festering tissue from an infected wound, Kevin removes what he sees as dead and toxic: humans. He proceeds to do this despite the wishes of others; Kevin not only fails to gain any form of consent from the population, but he also ignores the wishes of his partner Alice, who is determined to save their child throughout the novel. Similarly to how Kevin chooses to make the human race a forgotten concept, in modern medicine we are also faced with an option where we can forget past transgressions. Although this may seem like the easy thing to do, it is not right. If we forget what we have done, and do not make amends to fix what is broken in the systems we have inherited, there is no way to prevent further problems. For example, no prison research (and presumably other aspects of medicine) are “enjoying a quiet renaissance” (Medical Apartheid, 266); perhaps this is because the extent of prison research studies, and their effects, were not made widely available to the public. This revival of what should be extinct is what happens when we forget what has occurred in the past. Luckily, we still can treat this dilemma now and prevent it from turning into another ominous chapter in a history book by raising awareness of both the revival of the practice, and its harmful effects in the past.

When open wounds are present, infection can occur; in societies, systems can also begin to decay in this manner. In the ruins of the planet Alice and Kevin inhabit, both employ different approaches for dealing with this rot. Kevin wants to remove and forget humans in order to allow the planet to heal—like the process of debridement. Alice, on the other hand, wants to make positive changes in what is left of the world by rebelling, doing what she sees as right, and bringing new life to earth.  In the field of medicine, we cannot simply remove our past from the collective memory of society.  If we ignore past injustices, they will never go away and proceed to cause further demise. In order to fix something that is damaged, it is necessary to acknowledge what went wrong, address the damage, and allow healing to occur: much like we would with any physical wound.

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