Stephen Fry Reads Nick Cave’s Stirring Letter About ChatGPT and Human Creativity: “We Are Fighting for the Very Soul of the World”

Observers have expressed a variety of reactions to the organizational drama unfolding even now at OpenAI, the non-profit behind the enormously popular ChatGPT. Some have already written speculative laments in case of OpenAI’s total dissolution, mourning the great strides in artificial intelligence that would thus be forsaken. It’s safe to say that Nick Cave will not do the same: having used his newsletter The Red Hand Files to cast doubt on AI’s ability to write a great song — and to condemn a set of ChatGPT-generated lyrics in his own style — he more recently told a fan exactly “what’s wrong with making things faster and easier” through AI.

“ChatGPT rejects any notions of creative struggle, that our endeavors animate and nurture our lives giving them depth and meaning,” Cave writes. “It rejects that there is a collective, essential and unconscious human spirit underpinning our existence, connecting us all through our mutual striving.”

In “fast-tracking the commodification of the human spirit by mechanizing the imagination,” it works toward eliminating “the process of creation and its attendant challenges, viewing it as nothing more than a time-wasting inconvenience that stands in the way of the commodity itself.” But the creative impulse “must be defended at all costs, and just as we would fight any existential evil,” we should fight the forces set against it “tooth and nail, for we are fighting for the very soul of the world.”

These are strong words, and they sound even stronger when read aloud in the Letters Live video above by Stephen Fry. One may sense a certain irony here, given Fry’s well-known technophilia, but he and Cave have made common cause before, whether calling for government support of the arts or turning up for the coronation of King Charles III. “Fry refers to Cave’s Murder Ballads album in his book The Ode Less Travelled,” adds one Youtube commenter, “while Fry is rumored to be the person with ‘an enormous and encyclopedic brain’ in Cave’s song ‘We Call Upon the Author.'” ChatGPT could well be described as encyclopedic, but in no ordinary sense does it have a brain — the very thing of which authors are now called upon to make the fullest possible use.

Related Content:

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

A New Course Teaches You How to Tap the Powers of ChatGPT and Put It to Work for You

ChatGPT Writes a Song in the Style of Nick Cave–and Nick Cave Calls it “a Grotesque Mockery of What It Is to Be Human”

Noam Chomsky on ChatGPT: It’s “Basically High-Tech Plagiarism” and “a Way of Avoiding Learning”

Demystifying Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Red Right Hand,” and How It Was Inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost

Benedict Cumberbatch, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Fry & Others Read Letters of Hope, Love & Support During COVID-19

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads a Letter to People Who Don’t Lock Bathroom Doors

In April 2018, author Andrew Forrester wrote an open letter to “People Who Don’t Make Every Conceivable Effort to Ensure that the Bathroom Door is Locked.” And now Benedict Cumberbatch has read it, and read it well. This reading took place at Letters Live, an event celebrating the power of literary correspondence, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall. You can find other Cumberbatch readings in the Relateds below.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

Related Content 

Benedict Cumberbatch & Ian McKellen Read Epic Letters Written by Kurt Vonnegut

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads “the Best Cover Letter Ever Written”

Hear Benedict Cumberbatch Reading Letters by Kurt Vonnegut, Alan Turing, Sol LeWitt, and Others

A Student Writes a Rejection Letter Rejecting Harvard’s Rejection Letter (1981): Hear It Read by Actor Himesh Patel

The documentary filmmaker and sports editor Paul Devlin has won five Emmy awards, but he may well be better known for not getting into Harvard — or rather, for not getting into Harvard, then rejecting Harvard’s rejection. “I noticed that the rejection letter I received from Harvard had a grammatical error,” Devlin writes. “So, I wrote a letter back, rejecting their rejection letter.” His mother then “sent a copy of this letter to the New York Times and it was published in the New Jersey section on May 31, 1981.” In 1996, when the New York Times Magazine published a cover story “about the trauma students were experiencing getting rejected from colleges,” she seized the opportunity to send her son’s rejection-rejection letter to the Paper of Record.

It turned out that Devlin’s letter had already run there, having long since gone the pre-social-media equivalent of viral. “The New York Times accused me of plagiarism. When they discovered that I was the original author and they had unwittingly re-printed themselves, they were none too happy. But my mom insists that it was important to reprint the article because the issue was clearly still relevant.”

Indeed, its afterlife continues even today, as evidenced by the new video from Letters Live at the top of the post. In it actor Himesh Patel, well-known from series like EastEnders, Station Eleven, and Avenue 5, reads aloud Devlin’s letter, which runs as follows:

Having reviewed the many rejection letters I have received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejection at this time.

This year, after applying to a great many colleges and universities, I received an especially fine crop of rejection letters. Unfortunately, the number of rejections that I can accept is limited.

Each of my rejections was reviewed carefully and on an individual basis. Many factors were taken into account – the size of the institution, student-faculty ratio, location, reputation, costs and social atmosphere.

I am certain that most colleges I applied to are more than qualified to reject me. I am also sure that some mistakes were made in turning away some of these rejections. I can only hope they were few in number.

I am aware of the keen disappointment my decision may bring. Throughout my deliberations, I have kept in mind the time and effort it may have taken for you to reach your decision to reject me.

Keep in mind that at times it was necessary for me to reject even those letters of rejection that would normally have met my traditionally high standards.

I appreciate your having enough interest in me to reject my application. Let me take the opportunity to wish you well in what I am sure will be a successful academic year.


Paul Devlin
Applicant at Large

However considerable the moxie (to use a wholly American term) shown by the young Devlin in his letter, his reasoning seems not to have swayed Harvard’s admissions department. Whether it would prove any more effective in the twenty-twenties than it did in the nineteen-eighties seems doubtful, but it must remain a satisfying read for high-school students dispirited by the supplicating posture the college-application process all but forces them to take. It surely does them good to remember that they, too, possess the agency to declare acceptance or rejection of that which is presented to them simply as necessity, as obligation, as a given. And for Devlin, at least, there was always the University of Michigan.

Related content:

Read Rejection Letters Sent to Three Famous Artists: Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut & Andy Warhol

T. S. Eliot, as Faber & Faber Editor, Rejects George Orwell’s “Trotskyite” Novel Animal Farm (1944)

Gertrude Stein Gets a Snarky Rejection Letter from Publisher (1912)

Meet the “Grammar Vigilante,” Hell-Bent on Fixing Grammatical Mistakes on England’s Storefront Signs

Steven Pinker Identifies 10 Breakable Grammatical Rules: “Who” Vs. “Whom,” Dangling Modifiers & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Ian McKellen Read Epic Letters Written by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is one of those writers whose wit, humanism and lack of sentimentality leave you hankering for more.

Fortunately, the prolific novelist was an equally prolific letter writer.

His published correspondence includes a description of the firebombing of Dresden penned upon his release from the Slaughterhouse Five POW camp, an admission to daughter Nanette that most parental missives “contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice,” and some unvarnished exchanges with many of familiar literary names. (“I am cuter than you are,” he taunted Cape Cod neighbor Norman Mailer.)

No wonder these letters are catnip to performers with the pedigree to recognize good writing when they see it.

Having interpreted Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Ionesco, book lover Benedict Cumberbatch obviously relishes the straightforward ire of Vonnegut’s 1973 response to a North Dakota school board chairman who ordered a school janitor to burn all copies of Slaughterhouse-Five assigned by Bruce Severy, a recently hired, young English teacher.

In addition to Slaughterhouse-Five, the board also consigned two other volumes on the syllabus – James Dickey’s Deliverance and an anthology containing short stories by Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck – to the fire.

Revisiting the event, the Bismarck Tribune reports that “the objection to (Slaughterhouse-Five) had to do with profanity, (Deliverance) with some homosexual material and the (anthology) because the first two rendered all of Severy’s choices suspect.”

A decade later, Vonnegut also revisited the school board’s “insulting” objections in the pages of  the New York Times:

Even by the standards of Queen Victoria, the only offensive line in the entire novel is this: ”Get out of the road, you dumb m(———–).” This is spoken by an American antitank gunner to an unarmed American chaplain’s assistant during the Battle of the Bulge in Europe in December 1944, the largest single defeat of American arms (the Confederacy excluded) in history. The chaplain’s assistant had attracted enemy fire.

Word is Vonnegut’s letter never received the courtesy of a reply.

One wonders if the recipient burned it, too.

If that 50 year old letter feels germane, check out Vonnegut’s 1988 letter to people living 100 years in the future, a little more than 50 years from where we are now.

In many ways, its commonsense advice surpasses the evergreen words of those it namechecks – Shakespeare’s Polonius, St. John the Divine, and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. The threat of environmental collapse it seeks to stave off has become even more dire in the ensuing years.

Vonnegut’s advice (listed below) clearly resonates with Cumberbatch, a vegan who leveraged his celebrity to bring attention to the climate crisis when he participated in the Extinction Rebellion Protests in London.

1. Reduce and stabilize your population.

2. Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.

3. Stop preparing for war and start dealing with your real problems.

4. Teach your kids, and yourselves, too, while you’re at it, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.

5. Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.

6. Stop thinking your grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive you may be, since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship. That is really mean, and stupid.

7. And so on. Or else.

Vonnegut, who died in 2007 at the age of 84, never lost his touch with young readers. Who better to recite his 2006 letter to his fans in New York City’s Xavier High School’s student body than the ever youthful, ever curious actor and activist, Sir Ian McKellen?

Cumberbatch is a wonderful reader, but he’d require a bit more seasoning to pull these lines off without the aid of major prosthetics:

You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana. 

Now if only these gents would attempt a Hoosier accent…

Related Content 

Ian McKellen Recites Shakespeare’s Sonnet 20, Backed by Garage Rock Band, the Fleshtones, on Andy Warhol’s MTV Variety Show (1987)

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Nick Cave’s Beautiful Letter About Grief

Watch Sir Ian McKellen’s 1979 Master Class on Macbeth’s Final Monologue

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads “the Best Cover Letter Ever Written”

Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Its current issue celebrates Kurt Vonnegut’s centennial. Her most recent books are Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Isaac Asimov on How Libraries Can Radically Change Your Life (1971)

Back in 1971, Isaac Asimov sent a letter to celebrate the opening of a new library in Troy, Michigan. Thoughtful as always, his letter addressed the children of the Troy community as follows: “Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you—and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life.”

In total, 97 writers (including Dr. Spock, Dr. Seuss and E.B. White) sent letters to mark the occasion. You can read through them in the Troy Library Flickr stream here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

Related Content

Isaac Asimov Laments the “Cult of Ignorance” in the United States (1980)

Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: A Witty, Erudite Atheist’s Guide to the World’s Most Famous Book

Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future of Civilization–and Recommends Ways to Ensure That It Survives (1978)

How Isaac Asimov Went from Star Trek Critic to Star Trek Fan & Advisor

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Nick Cave’s Beautiful Letter About Grief

We would rather not grieve. Because we avoid it, death can leave us numb, and we may not know how to talk about it without turning loss into a lesson. “Even when it’s expected, death or loss still comes as a surprise,” writes psychotherapist Megan Devine in her book on grieving, It’s OK That You’re Not OKAnd in grief, it can so happen that “otherwise intelligent people have started spouting slogans and platitudes, trying to cheer you up. Trying to take away your pain.” Everything happens for a reason, they’re in a better place, they’d want you to be happy, this will make you stronger….! However well-intentioned, “platitudes and cheerleading solve nothing.”

Is loss a problem to be solved? Can we avoid grief without shutting out the intimacy of love? There are many sage answers to these questions. Few, for example, have written as elegantly or agonized as publicly about love and loss as singer Nick Cave of The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds. These are subjects to which he returns on album after album and in entries of his cult-favorite blog The Red Hand Files, where Cave publishes answers to an assortment of fan questions.

Musing in 2019 on whether artificial intelligence will ever produce a great song, for example, Cave states one of his major themes plainly: “A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.” From this capacity come our greatest imaginative feats, Cave writes: our ability to conjure “bright phantoms” in our deepest grief.

Cave wrote these last words in 2018 to a fan named Cynthia who told him about her family’s losses and asked the singer if he and his wife Susie communicated with their son Arthur, who died tragically in 2015. In answer, Cave avoids the cliches that Devine says do nothing for us. He neither denies the reality of Cynthia’s pain, nor does he leave her without hope for “change and growth and redemption.”

Dear Cynthia,

This is a very beautiful question and I am grateful that you have asked it. It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves. We are tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.

I feel the presence of my son, all around, but he may not be there. I hear him talk to me, parent me, guide me, though he may not be there. He visits Susie in her sleep regularly, speaks to her, comforts her, but he may not be there. Dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake. These spirits are ideas, essentially. They are our stunned imaginations reawakening after the calamity. Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

With love, Nick

Cave’s full letter, above, is as eloquent a piece of writing on grief and loss, in its way, as John Donne’s famous meditation (a poet for whom Nick Cave has a “soft spot,” he writes in another entry). At the top, you can hear a very moving reading of the text by Benedict Cumberbatch for Letters Live. Read more of Cave’s brief-but-deep meditations and lyrical replies at The Red Hand Files.

Related Content:

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

How Do You Help a Grieving Friend? Acknowledge Their Pain and Skip the Platitudes & Facile Advice

An Animated Leonard Cohen Offers Reflections on Death: Thought-Provoking Excerpts from His Final Interview

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sir Ben Kingsley Reads a Letter Written by Gandhi to Hitler (in the Voice of Mahatma Gandhi)

Several years before Indian independence as World War loomed, Mahatma Gandhi found he had little sway in international politics even as he built his movement at home. The philosophy of satyagraha did not sound noble to the British in 1939, for example, when the Indian leader wrote a letter exhorting them to let the Germans take their country, their homes, and even their lives rather than fight back. That same year, he wrote to Hitler, addressing him as “Dear Friend” and writing, “It is quite clear that you are today the one person in the world who can prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state.”

Gandhi’s first 1939 letter to Hitler implies that the Führer was the only world leader who wanted such a war. The Indian leader fully understood the stakes. “My sympathies are all with the Jews,” he’d written in a 1938 article. “If there ever could be a justifiable war, in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified.” Still, he concluded, “I do not believe in any war.” He stuck to his principles even after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

“Not deterred by the outbreak of war,” Alexander LaCasse writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Gandhi wrote to Hitler a second time.” Just above, you can see Sir Ben Kingsley read that letter, in character as Gandhi and perhaps sounding much like Gandhi did when reading his letters aloud. Gandhi “took correspondence very seriously,” Nick Owen writes, and he “wrote — and was written to by — almost anyone.” In this much longer letter from 1940, Gandhi extols the practical virtues of non-violence and attempts some moral reasoning:

If not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leaving no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud. They cannot take pride in a recital of a cruel deed, however skillfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war.

“There is no evidence to suggest Hitler ever responded to,” or even read, “either of Gandhi’s letters,” writes LaCasse. And maybe little evidence that Gandhi expected a response. “I am aware that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts,” he writes. “But we have been taught from childhood to regard them as acts degrading humanity.” He continues to profess Hitler a friend, writing “I own no foes. My business in life has been for the past 33 years to enlist the friendship of the whole of humanity.”

Before his death in 1948, Gandhi called the Holocaust “the greatest crime of our time.” According to a biographer, he also added, “the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.” Had he suggested this in a letter to Europe’s Jews, it is unlikely they would have been persuaded.

Related Content:

Carl Jung Psychoanalyzes Hitler: “He’s the Unconscious of 78 Million Germans.” “Without the German People He’d Be Nothing” (1938)

When Mahatma Gandhi Met Charlie Chaplin (1931)

Mahatma Gandhi’s List of the 7 Social Sins; or Tips on How to Avoid Living the Bad Life

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Brian Cox of “Succession” Read Hunter S. Thompson’s Profanity-Laden Letter

Brian Cox has maneuvered over four decades of acting while remaining a bit anonymous from one role to the next. Or at least that was the case until his star turn as Logan Roy, the stentorian patriarch at the center of HBO’s Succession. Now it is hard to separate Cox from his character. His way of delivering the delicious insults of the show’s scripts are both frightening and hilarious–as is his way of punctuating a scene with two simple words: “Fuc& Off.”

Look, we try to keep swearing to a minimum on this site, but Cox does wonders with that phrase. Just watch one of the many supercuts of Logan Roy saying it, and hear a master at work.

So the clip above, from a UK event series called Letters Live, shows why Cox is a perfect fit to read Hunter S. Thompson’s letter to a certain Dave Allen, director of programming at the writer’s local network affiliate, KREX-TV. Allen had taken the CBS news off the local station, and Thompson was having none of it.

Thompson wrote many blistering, profanity-laden letters from his Colorado home. The above was collected in Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist (Gonzo Letters, Volume II, 1968-1976). Allen joins a list of recipients of Thompson’s venom that includes his editor at Random House, Loren Jenkins of Newsweek, Paul Gorman of WBAI-FM, and many others, most of whom owed him money for this or that writing assignment.

Letters Live keeps its epistles short, and Brian Cox acts out Thompson’s short note, pouring contempt through every turn of phrase.

The project’s YouTube channel offers many other letters from history, read by actors like Olivia Coleman, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Matt Berry, Carey Mulligan, Gillian Anderson, Ian McKellen, and many more. It’s worth checking out, especially if historical swearing is your thing.

Related Content:

Hunter S. Thompson Writes a Blistering, Over-the-Top Letter to Anthony Burgess (1973)

Hunter S. Thompson Calls Tech Support, Unleashes a Tirade Full of Fear and Loathing (NSFW)

Shakespearean Actor Brian Cox Teaches Hamlet’s Soliloquy to a 2-Year-Old Child

The History of Ancient Greece in 18 Minutes: A Brisk Primer Narrated by Brian Cox

The Scotch Pronunciation Guide: Brian Cox Teaches You How To Ask Authentically for 40 Scotches

Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

More in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.